*. Given how popular Jane Austen has always been, and how Emma is, after Pride and Prejudice, her most beloved novel, it’s odd that the teen comedy Clueless was actually its first big-screen adaptation. Even Sense and Sensibility beat it out. This movie followed quickly (both Clueless and Sense and Sensibility were released the year before), and in 2020 we had another Emma. But that still doesn’t feel like a lot. Just think of how many Draculas we’ve had, or Tarzans.
*. Where Clueless was a contemporary change-up on the source, this Emma is the traditional, Masterpiece Theatre version, complete with Empire-waists and lots of plummy accents. Coincidentally, it would receive the same treatment in a TV-movie with Kate Beckinsale playing the lead that came out the same year. So how do the different approaches measure up?
*. Normally I’m not a fan of updating the classics. I don’t usually go for Shakespeare in contemporary dress, for example. And I am a big fan of Austen’s novel as well. That said, I enjoy Clueless more than this version of Emma.
*. Though in saying why I’m nervous of falling into a trap. I find the presentation here, for all its use of lovely outdoor settings, to be airless. But Austen’s world is airless. As Charlotte Brontë put it on reading Pride and Prejudice, it’s like “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” Just the kind of place Mr. Woodhouse would feel at home, and that one suspects Mr. Knightley also looks forward to in the evening of life.
*. The challenge is to show the life churning underneath the rules of social etiquette, formal address, and properly-laced attire. This I think is tolerably well done here, but I was left feeling that Gwyneth Paltrow was not the right actor for the job. She is already so languid and wan that she doesn’t give Emma the necessary spark. There is something missing from Paltrow’s eyes. She’s not totally dead, but she’s not fully alive either.
*. I’m disagreeing then with Roger Ebert, who thought Paltrow sparkled in the part. Sparkle is precisely what I thought she lacked. Nor was it just a case of Emma being repressed. She is not, after all, a rebel.
*. This brings me to a more fundamental disagreement with Ebert, when he says “Stories like this are about manners, nuance and the way that one’s natural character tugs against the strict laws of society.” I think this is mistaking Austen entirely. The point Austen is making has to do with accepting that the strict laws of society are natural, and that one only hurts oneself in opposing them. Austen is a profoundly conservative author. When Mr. Elton, offended at Emma’s thinking that he had designs on Harriet Smith, says that “everybody has their level” (a line taken directly from the book), he’s not just being a snob. He’s right, and Emma was wrong in trying to make that particular match.
*. It is, then, a very conventional production of a very conventional story. Even the necessary concessions to film, including Emma providing “Dear Diary” voiceover, fit the mold. Which is not to say that it isn’t enjoyable judged on its own terms. This may be less Masterpiece Theatre than Hallmark Presents, but romance is a perfectly valid genre and this is a well executed example. There’s something particularly sweet, almost chaste, about the idea of falling in love with and marrying your best friend. Who doesn’t wish all the best for Emma and Mr. Knightley? Even if they already have everything.