Emma (1996)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

Some might think Emma a strange choice for a featured selection here, but I contend it is not strange at all. Often simple settings and stories with few characters can better illustrate profound ideas than a plot that is complex and sophisticated with a “cast of thousands.” Emma’s world is set, as the film’s opening narration puts it: “in a time when one’s town was one’s world, and the actions at a dance excited greater interest than the movement of armies.” A good case could be made that our time could use a bit of that pleasant and uncomplicated life.

This simplicity of setting and characters makes the exposition of certain ideas correspondingly uncomplicated. One of the ideas behind the scenes in Emma is the “law of unintended consequences.” Normally one encounters this idea involved with a central planning agency of some kind. There is no government or State perceptible in this film, but Emma herself fills this role. For as the opening narration also has it she is “a young woman who knew how this world should be run.”

Emma Woodhouse is portrayed beautifully by the dazzling Gywneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love). The period is Regency England and near Highbury outside of London is the place where Emma does her meddling. The story begins at the wedding of her former governess, who Emma introduced to the groom. This “success” at match-making sets Emma on the mission to pair up the people she decides need this service, principally her new friend Harriet, first with the Vicar, Mr. Elton.

The other casting is equally well done. Jeremy Northam (The Winslow Boy) is excellent as Mr. Knightley, the main opposition to Emma’s inclination to make pairings. Knightley is the epitome of the cultured gentleman and Northam carries this off exceedingly well.

All the characters are very well-acted with Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates being particularly amusing. Ewan McGregor has an early part in a supporting role. Some have said that Northam was badly cast as Knightley as he is supposed to be 16 years Emma’s senior. However, Northam is eleven years older than Paltrow, who is also known for her youthful appearance.

This story of manners shows a deep insight into human affairs and is still charming. Paltrow and Northam are a very good pairing. Emma herself is exceedingly opinionated and manipulative which feeds her ambition to make matches. She can be both deceptive and obnoxious, but also has good qualities which eventually win out. However, her interventions continue disrupting the lives of the people she is trying to “help,” building slowly until…. Well, that would be telling wouldn’t it?

Emma is a charming, sometimes amusing and enjoyable movie but still one with plenty of lessons to teach. The DVD has a few extra features, such as trailers, available.

Related DVD

Related DVD

Soundtrack CD