Movie Review: Emma

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Review: It's very good, especially if you haven't seen a movie adaptation of a Jane Austin book yet, or if you like this sort of movie in general.

Quick Synopsis: As with all movies based on Jane Austin books, we have the traditional plot: England, the 1800s, and a main character (Emma) self-riteously interferes with other people's lives either by preventing relationships or manipulating people into them. But, it all works out in the end with a pleasant and teary climax.

Comments: I have a number of good things to say about the movie, as well as bad things. But in the end, the good outwieghs the bad, and I think it's overall a very good film. As you can tell from my rather simplistic synopsis, my biggest problem with the movie is its lack of originality. We've seen this all before, far too many times, and for the 4th time this year. It's like having a great dinner one night, but then find you have to eat the exact same thing night after night thereafter. Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, or any of the other Jane Austin adaptations all deal with this subject and plot.

On its own merits, however, the movie is still quite good, and as you all know me by now, it's because of (sing along with me now) "character development." The characters in the movie are believable, from their statements to their expressions to their actions. The actors present depth, the plot is stimulating, as are the minor characters and subplots. And this also lends itself to the best part of the movie and why the movie is very effective: certain "emotions" -- and the actions we take because of them -- are human nature; they are timeless. The way people feel or even go about the business of love is consistent regardless of culture, time period, or financial status. You have all types of people, ranging from the aggressive, the meek, the honest and altruistic, and of course, the manipulative. So, even though the characters in the movie are from another country, from another time, are lead decadent lifestyles, and never do anything that involves thought of perspiration, we can all identify with each and every character and situation.

Enter Emma, the second-best part of the movie: a well-to-do 22 year old who believes she knows what's good for people in the matter of love, regardless of what they think. Are her motives altrustic? Certainly not in the beginning. But, as she succeeds in hurting people, miscalculating events, misinterpreting others' actions, emotions or intentions, and generally failing at everything she's setting out to do, she soon learns that she almost screws up her own chances at love and is jolted into changing herself.

This is the end of the good parts of the movie. Granted, those are very good, and by no means do my criticisms negatively impact my overall feeling. But, with that said, the movie presents us with the fairy-tale ending where all things are good again and people live happily ever after. Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but the movie did such a good job at presenting realistic characters and behaviors, that you're sort of expecting the same consistency in the end. We can assume because of the happy ending, that Emma realizes the errors of her ways and turns a new leaf. But does she? Or does she really just exhibit the text-book symptoms of anyone with compulsive behavior patterns, who temporarily remedy themselves to feel better inside, or to present a "cured" exterior, only to later return to old behaviors? That question is closer reality and isn't addressed.

Am I being too demanding? Perhaps, but I wouldn't even suggest this if it weren't for the fact that the movie puts Emma through this very cycle twice during the movie! In both cases, she realizes how she's hurt someone, feels terrible, vows never to do it again, yet does so anyway. We like to think she finally learns her lesson in the end, but we aren't given any evidence to suggest this -- they just end the movie by artfully presenting a situation where you can't possibly know. For all we know, she *could* return to her old self, or, she may have actually changed. For me, I was waiting for the next scene to help me close this final question, so I was left a little high and dry when the movie ended. It wasn't bad, and nothing a little editing of sequential events couldn't have cured, but it's ok.

This was Douglas McGrath's directorial debut, who also co-wrote it with Jane Austin. McGrath was a writer for other movies, such as Bullets of Broadway (Woody Allen) and was an actor in Quiz Show (1994). Gwyneth Paltrow plays Emma, and while she does an excellent job, I keep thinking of Emma Thompson, who usually plays the leading role in these types of movies. :-) Gwyneth also played in 13 other movies, including Seven, Malice, and Jefferson in Paris. Finally, you may recognize Toni Collette, the australian actor who played in Muriel's Wedding, where she plays almost the same role. ;-) (This is a great movie, which you should get on video if you have a chance.)

All the other actors were very good, as was the directing, but I can't say anything was more extraordinary than other (good) mainstream movies.

Notable quotes:
"Vanity working on a weak mind produces all kinds of mischief."
"Better to be without sense than misapply it as you do."
"I must throw a party; otherwise everyone will see clearly how much I despise her."
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