Like no other traditional adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, this film truly brings all of the characters to life. Jeremy Northam (Mr. Knightley) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse) convey so much emotion and vivacity through their evident chemistry on screen. And not only do the characters come alive, but also the entire story accurately captures Austen’s famous wit and sharp humor. This adaptation of Emma was written and directed by Douglas McGrath, a comedian as proven by his work as a writer for Saturday Night Live. McGrath’s comedian humor in collaboration with Austen’s wit delivers one of the most sparkling and modern adaptations of Emma.
All of the actors are perfectly suited to the characters that they play: Tony Collette as Harriet, Greta Scacchi as Mrs. Weston, Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton, and Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill. The only exception is Mrs. Elton, as portrayed by Juliet Stevenson, who does not seem to answer to Austen’s description of her “perfect beauty and merit” (170). However, Stevenson’s depiction really highlights and illustrates Mrs. Elton’s ridiculousness of manners, as she shouts “Knightley” and “Mr. E.”
This film is bright, scenic, and artistic. Every scene resembles a painting, with highly decorated backdrops and picturesque landscape. The costumes, although at times too light and almost see-through, especially on Emma, are close to accurate, being of the correct fashion of Austen’s period. The dancing scenes, as in all traditional Jane Austen adaptations, are elegant with lengthy, intricate routines. Overall, in this aspect, the film is nicely and accurately done.
One of the most comical scenes in the film is when Emma and Mr. Knightley argue over Harriet’s refusal to Robert Martin’s marriage proposal. In the novel, this scene takes place inside the Woodhouse house, Hartfield. However, in McGrath’s film, Emma and Mr. Knightley are outside, occupied with archery, when this conversation takes place. Interestingly, while Emma thinks that she is in the right and holds all of the key information, she hits the target and even makes some shots that are very close to the bullseye. While proudly hiding her own role in Harriet’s refusal, Emma is like a stubborn cupid, aiming with bow and arrow. As soon as Mr. Knightley suspects the role that Emma had to play in Harriet’s refusal, he begins to hit all of the bullseyes, while Emma’s arrows miss the target completely, causing Mr. Knightley to say “Try not to kill my dogs,” as her arrow scarcely misses the poor creatures. This scene, although not entirely true to the novel, is an example of how McGrath took Austen’s characters and story and told it in a fresh, new style and still retained all of the story’s essential elements, even exaggerating some of the best of Austen’s humor and wit.
McGrath’s Emma is an altogether true and new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. With its many comedic elements, it stands out from the rest of the traditional Emma adaptations and really shows off the novel as a comedy of manners.