Film Review: Emma (1996)

“Badly done, Emma. Badly done”

Written and directed by Douglas McGrath, this 1996 film adaptation of Emma may have had a starrier cast than the television version from the same year but it sadly pales by comparison. Gwyneth Paltrow gives a brittle, aloof performance as Emma Woodhouse, an almost princessy take on the character which may work for the unthinkingness of her actions but something that also detaches her emotionally from her friends and colleagues, robbing the film of the charming resonance it ought to possess as the romantic trials of Highbury unfold around her matchmaking.

This starchiness is something that affects the whole film – Greta Scacchi’s former governess is too mannered for a good friend, Alan Cumming’s Mr Bates just feels wrongly pitched and whilst I normally love any opportunity to see Juliet Stevenson, her arrival as his wife is unbelievable and underplayed, and the delightful Toni Collette struggles with the meek Harriet, her natural ebullience hemmed in awkwardly. Even the normally reliable Jeremy Northam misses the mark as Knightley. (I won’t mention Ewan McGregor’s Frank Churchill to help to erase it from my memory).

The use of voiceovers and fourth-wall-breaking speak of directorial fussiness, perhaps coming from the pointless butchering of the source material into something essentially flawed. Sophie Thompson probably emerges the best as a fussing Miss Bates, humiliated by Emma’s thoughtlessness though given all above, their reconciliation doesn’t convince. Trite and slight, fatefully miscast and dramatically underpowered, I’d give it miss to be honest.

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