(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.