Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Emma: Best-laid plans gone wrong

Douglas McGrath’s Gwyneth Paltrow starrer Emma may have been adapted by Jane Austen’s globally known classic but it does not do much justice to the original text. The movie centers too much on Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley and hardly leaves room for other characters.

Emma Woodhouse has beauty, wealth and a loving family. Smug and self confident Emma spends her time matchmaking for her friend Harriet Smith. Her interest is sparked off from successfully pairing her governess to a local widower.

Then she sets her sights on the lower born and easily led Harriet and tries to marry her off to the local vicar, Reverend Elton and later Frank Churchill. Her naïve schemes are as funny as well as excruciating.

No doubt Emma makes an unlikely heroine and to echo Austen’s own words Emma is the ‘heroine no one will like.’So it is a challenge for Paltrow to portray the young girl in a manner which will amuse the audience at the beginning and even make them dislike her slightly before accepting her in her new found mature light at the end of the story.

At first take Emma seems to be a snobbish young lady from the well to do class but once we get to know her better we realize that she is actually well meaning and good hearted and all her actions are taken with a good intention in mind. When disaster strikes she is touchingly venerable. This draws the audience to her.

However inexperienced as she is Emma does not realize that some of her comments and actions will bear bitter fruit and actually hurt others. She learns this only through practice and shines as the good hearted girl she actually is.

Paltrow achieves this aspect with unwavering grace as Emma finally finds happiness in the arms of George Knightley. She is undoubtedly the star of the movie as the other characters are played by lesser known actors who fail to live up to her charms.

Jeremy Northam may have fitted the role of Mr Knightley in looks but he seems too polished to be a fitting companion for Emma’s likes.

He does a better job in telling her off after the drama at Box Hill with Miss Bates rather than in courting her. There is lack of chemistry between the two though it was oblivious that both of them are going to end up together.

Though Austen’s Harriet is a pretty 17-year old, Toni Collette does not fit this image.

She makes a much older and plumper Harriet. She seems more like a dame nearing her spinsterhood who is desperate to grab onto the nearest man who shows the slightest interest in her rather than the petite youth.

This is in stark contrast to Emma’s character. The film’s version of Harriet seems to have been injected deliberately to enhance Emma’s attractiveness.

This does more damage to the story than good. The same tactic has been used in casting Ewan McGregor as the supposed-to-be-dashing Frank Churchill. Luckily Jane Fairfax portrayed by Polly Walker is more likeable but her screen time has been cut short to make room for Emma. The 19th century Dorset village is charmingly captured on film but there are instances when you cannot help feeling that the director could have made more use of the beauty of the scenic English landscape. For instance McGrath could have played up some of the outdoor scenes with a panoramic view instead of zooming in on the characters.

Since the main focus of the movie is on the comic element quite a bit had to be severed off the original tale. The Frank Churchill-Jane Fairfax liaison seem to have suffered the most from this change in track because the viewers cannot make a head or tail out of the romance. Both of them play important roles in Austen’s novel because they are the ones who create tension between Emma and Knightley and makes us realize that there is more than a deep friendship between them.

The theme of Emma is the education of women and indeed we see this purpose achieved through Knightley trying to better Emma.

Though the story follows along the lines of Austen’s original in most instances this is clearly not made for scholars. It aims at the younger audience for entertainment rather than for academic purposes.

Similar to Emma, McGrath’s best-laid plans too may not have made the mark in this production. It lacks the liveliness of a good adaptation but is an entertaining light hearted comedy.

Ruwini JAYAWARDANA - Daily News