Jane Austen’s novel of 1815 is given the nineties rom-com treatment in this charming film, which was released the year after the TV series of Pride and Prejudice that introduced the famous ‘wet shirt scene’ to the world. Alas, there is no such scene in this adaptation of Emma.
The basic premise of the story is that Emma, young, wealthy and living with her father on a grand estate, does not need to marry. So she sets about matchmaking for her friend Harriet, a younger girl of a different social class. However, Emma makes misjudgements galore while interfering with other people’s love lives, causing embarrassment and misery. At the same time, her best friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley, is the one for her, but a string of further errors causes conflict between them. Never fear, you know it will turn out all right in the end.
Gwyneth Paltrow makes a perfect, if unsubtle, Emma. Toni Collette is excellent as Harriet Smith; you can see her anxiety at being in grand social situations, as she develops gestures that accentuate her awkwardness rather than cover it. I found Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) a bit underwhelming. I was probably comparing him to Mr Darcy. Unlike Darcy, Knightley is agreeable to everyone and always knows the correct way to behave – which is what makes him less interesting to me. Really the film version of him is similar to the book, with a touch more playfulness.
The novel is also known for the characters of Mrs and Miss Bates, who live in what you might call genteel poverty. Although they are quite annoying, they are to be treated kindly. In the film, Mrs Bates is portrayed as a stern-looking, silent woman who stares into the distance while her daughter talks and giggles constantly. Fun fact: they are played by real-life mother and daughter, Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson.
As you would expect with a period drama adaptation of a book, the romance and comedy elements are enhanced, while reducing aspects which don’t contribute to the story. This helps to streamline the plot, which is important for a film because hundreds of pages’ worth of story have to be packed into a couple of hours. I wouldn’t say Emma is my favourite film adaptation, but it is my favourite Austen book (at the moment…. I’m planning to re-read them all, so my opinion could change). It made me smile and it warmed my heart. Job well done.