Reviewer: Charity Bishop
There are few films that reach an aura of refinement. Emma is one of them. Set in a time when one's home was one's world, and the actions at a dance excited more interest than the movement of armies, there lived a young woman who knew how this world should be run...
Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) has just bid her beloved governess farewell, for with her acceptance of the wealthy older widower Mr. Weston, she will be leaving her comfortable position at Hartfield for a matrimonial fate. This is disagreeable both to Emma and her father, an eccentric old gentleman with a humorous nature; but one chooses to conceal it rather than brood and puts up a good face for her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam). Related through the marriage of Emma's older sister and Knightley's brother, the pair are ideal opponents in wit and good humor. Knightley is the more unpredictable of the pair, laid back and yet passionate when it suits him but above all, thoughtful, kind and compassionate -- unless Emma gets in his way. When she voices her intentions to match the local parson Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) up with someone of good consequence and nature, Knightley deeply disapproves of her stint in matchmaking, although steps back and allows her to try out her wings.
Providentially a new arrival is made in town... young Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), a rather silly girl but good-natured and sweet. Emma immediately begins to provoke sparks between Harriet and Mr. Elton, who seems an almost agreeable romantic interest. But when a proposal arrives from Harriet's own love Robert Martin, Emma persuades her to give up the match in favor of Mr. Elton. Knightley is infuriated with this exchange of events once he learns of the truth, and Emma sets out to prove him wrong in his suspicions that Elton will never marry Harriet. Fate holds a nasty surprise for Emma Woodhouse when on Christmas Eve it is not to Harriet that Mr. Elton proposes, but to herself! Apparently his love of their company was not for young Harriet's benefit, but an attempt to be nearer to Emma herself. Enraged that she has been so wrong, Emma turns his offer down and is forced to reveal to a crushed best friend how true things stand betwixt them.
In vowing never to match anyone up again, Emma returns to her old pattern of thinking... that is... until a handsome newcomer in the form of Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) comes to town. This matchmaker is about to meet her match in a hilariously tangled series of events that prove once and for all that the inexperienced shouldn't play with matches. This film lay the groundwork for Gwyneth Paltrow's stellar career in Hollywood, giving her the chance to fully explore her own insights and humorous intentions with one of Jane Austen's most controversial heroines. Emma is a character that you both loathe and love, one that disappoints you one moment and delights you the next. In short, she is a very human counterpart to Knightley's impeachable manners and good taste. The choice of casting for the two leads is superb, giving these two very different entertainers the chance to play off one another with witty banter and glances that tell everything. The supporting cast is not so grand; the director chose good actors, yes, but many of them do not fit the criteria nor age for the ideal set of characters.
Playing lightly over the backdrop of the breathtaking English countryside is a truly inspirational score that blends comic moments well with the more dramatic, providing a worthwhile theme. The film is a visual delight with beauty in every frame, from the lush gardens of Hartfield to the candle-lit interiors. Painstaking attention has been paid to detail, down to the cluttered paintings popular of that age and the intricateness of the steps preformed at the dance. The costuming is beautiful as well, but it is the camera directions and angles that deserve the highest praise. Interesting ways of melting into other scenes and using light make it a memorable experience. If not, the hero and heroine will surely captivate you within minutes. The character development is a more sketchy in many ways; it plays more off wit and wry humor than the dramatic turn that the alternative A&E production provides, which is probably why overall I like this one better. Emma is ideal for the romantic at heart.