Jane Austen on saccharine

FILM: Derek Malcolm

‘SHE’S not far,” Mr Knightley tells Emma, when she complains that the marriage of Harriet has robbed her of her friend. “Almost half a mile,” complains her father in complete sympathy. Things that go on in the small town of Highbury indeed appear to be “of greater interest than the movement of armies”.

But in illustrating the small microcosm of the world Jane Austen inhabited with such extraordinary precision and perception, there is no need to make it as cosy and picture- postcard as Douglas McGrath does in Emma. The whole thing gives off a pungent smell of antimacassars, fatally weakening, even with its insistent underscore of music, the hard- nosed sense of reality Austen also possessed.

This is, of course, the way to make a heritage movie. But it is not the way Ang Lee went with Sense And Sensibility and it is why McGrath’s effort, able in other directions as it is, is comfortably outshone by Ang Lee’s.

This is such a genteel, perfectly decorated world that you are almost surprised when anyone shows such a vulgar thing as emotion.

How on earth, one is forced at times to think, are this lot going to procreate children after the carefully engineered wedding banns are read? Would they even be able to undress in front of each other? Tea- cosy Austen encourages people to believe that this was not a great writer but one totally, if perfectly, stuck in the only milieu she knew.

Fortunately, McGrath has the benefit of a good to excellent cast and generally orchestrates the central love stories well. Like Knightley, he follows with some amusement Emma’s bewildering excursions into other people’s hearts and, when it finally comes to her own being touched, accomplishes what could have been a mawkish scene well.

Gwyneth Paltrow is a formidable Emma, who manages to suggest that much of her polite scheming is a mask for her own lack of experience and potential emptiness.

Toni Collette too, as the confused Harriet, longing first for Mr Elton and then Mr Knightley but, in the end, happily coupled to someone else, gives us a very satisfactory portrait, and if Juliet Stevenson outshines them both in the easier part of the ghastly woman who becomes Mrs Elton, that is par for the course. She is a most remarkable actress, able to suggest in her minute examination of the cake Emma gives her with tea practically everything about her character.

The men go through their paces well enough. Jeremy Mortham is a forthright Mr Knightley, giving Emma what for when she carelessly wounds Sophie Thompson’s spinsterish Miss Bates, while still suggesting that she is the apple of his eye. Alan Cumming’s Mr Elton plainly shows that he deserves what he has got in Mrs E.

For a moment I thought Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill, coming upon Emma stuck in the river, was going to harden up the proceeding with an injection of iron. But it comes to nothing, as does his part in the end.

What one misses is a sense that this tiny world accurately reflects the larger one outside. Despite its considerable subsidary virtues, it makes one hope there will be a little time before other Austen novels are brought to our attention on the screen. For the moment, enough is enough.

Emma opens on national circuit this Friday

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