Miramax Films

(Orig­i­nally published in Boston Maga­zine, 1996)

No wonder Holly­wood has fallen in love with Jane Austen! Her scripts feature snappy dialogue; her plots follow the classic Holly­wood formula of girl meets boy; girl loses boy; girl gets boy; her story lines move deli­ciously from chaos and confu­sion to harmony and delight, like the great madcap romantic come­dies of the thir­ties — Bringing Up Baby, The Palm Beach Story, It Happened One Night. Further­more, as costume dramas, they provide a fasci­nating glimpse at an imag­ined past. In each made-from-Austen movie, the look of the early nine­teenth century achieves new heights of verisimil­i­tude. But their real charm lies not in their realism — enter­taining as that is — but their dream-like perfec­tion. No real world was ever as perfect as Jane Austen’s prose.

In Emma, the latest and most delightful Austen offering (directed by Douglas McGrath, who co-wrote the screen­play for “Bullets Over Broadway” with Woody Allen), the sets are Neo-clas­sical: Wedg­wood colors and Graeco urns; deli­cate, atten­u­ated flow­er­pots; Empire dresses and pearl-drop earrings. The movie begins with close-ups of little papier-mache globes, hand-painted with pictures of High­bury, the small town where Emma lives and amuses herself by making up stories about the people around her. (In the book, Austen writes of “That very dear part of Emma, her fancy…”) Even­tu­ally, Emma’s fancy gets her in trouble; she gets carried away, then learns her lesson, grows up, and resolves to live real life and stop making up stories.

Emma is played to perfec­tion by Gwyneth Paltrow, who has the grace of a young Grace Kelly (espe­cially as Kelly appeared in High Society, that lovely musical remake of Philadel­phia Story, as an adorable princess who needs only to suffer — just a little — in order to become even more adorable.) And the hero, Mr. Knightly, is played by Jeremy Northam, who played the devas­tat­ingly hand­some Englishman who seduced and then tried to kill Sandra Bullock in The Net.

Jane Austen’s leading men are always reserved and often rather dull; the dashing ones usually out to be rakes or cads who break a poor romantic girl’s heart. Except for Darcy, in Pride and Prej­u­dice, who’s hand­some, myste­rious, and lives in a castle, (and was memo­rably played by Lawrence Olivier), Austen’s heroes are rather dry: reserved, unob­jec­tion­able country squires or country churchmen. And none of them is drier, more unre­mark­able, more reserved than Mr. Knightly. When I first read Emma, in high school in Pasadena, Cali­fornia, I was shocked and revolted when Emma married Mr. Knightly at the end of the book. He is calm, rational, and old — prac­ti­cally ancient at thirty-eight! All, to my school­girl imag­i­na­tion, insu­per­able obstac­tles to romance. But Northam brings warmth and inten­sity to the role. Without changing a word of Austen’s delightful script, he enhances Knightly, in every scene, with a look, a gaze, a smile.

We shot the scenes in medium and wide, so it was the perfect oppor­tu­nity to throw little glances,” says Northam when we meet to talk about Emma. Lounging in blue jeans and a T‑shirt in the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel, he is even more devas­tat­ingly hand­some in person than he is on film, with dark, deep eyes. “At one point Knightly says, ‘The truest friend does not doubt, but hopes,’ and he kisses her hand. In the book, he doesn’t kiss her hand. But the film is not the book. The char­acter needs warmth, the story needs sustaining.”

Northam grew up in an intel­lec­tual family; his father was a Fellow of Clare College in Cambridge. “I went to that Choir school that you hear on the radio at Christmas. Later we moved to Bristol, and some colleagues of my Dad’s — Oliver Neville and Pat Heywood — were theatre people, and they were so passionate about liter­a­ture and the theater and acting in general. They encour­aged and quizzed me. Still, it was quite a long throw to starting at 24.”

He did a stint at the Royal Shake­speare Company, where he once took over as Hamlet when Daniel Day-Lewis stepped out of the role. Emma is his second film, and he clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the char­acter; he quoted many passages from the book by heart. “The stories are nonsen­sical — priv­i­leged people worrying about incon­se­quen­tial things — but behind it all, there’s a moral urge,” he says, with a serious smile. “I don’t want to sound acad­emic and old-fash­ioned, but it’s a fantastic moral percep­tion of the universe, a sense of duty and respon­si­bility. Austen’s books are deeply romantic and they hold a deal of fantasy about adult life and hope about the future. How does one tame this untam­able spirit? The aloof man, the dangerous man. What would the future be like with him? At the same time, it’s recog­niz­able and comforting. Austen’s wit is based on profound knowl­edge of human nature; the acidity about the foibles and fail­ings of human nature makes the sweet­ness of the romance all the more appealing.”

Not much happens in Emma. All the action takes place in High­bury; there are no great melo­dramas, not much excite­ment, no real surprises. But every­thing Emma needs is to be found there; like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she learns to find happi­ness in her own back­yard. Like all Austen’s stories, Emma depicts a world where strong emotions are held in check; where English hearts — like English horses and English gardens — are wild, luxu­riant parts of nature that need to be tempered and tamed. And the reward of that taming is a happy ending — a wedding, and the feeling that all’s right with the world. At Emma’s wedding, one of the neigh­bors complains that there is “Very little white satin, very few lace veils…

This is, of course, a perfect descrip­tion of the book — and the movie. But to the discerning viewer, Emma has just the right mixture of romance and realism, senti­ment and sense — just enough satin, and just enough lace.

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