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The Real Clueless

David Appleby

Matchmaker: Gwyneth Paltrow, as Jane Austen's meddling marriage broker, is eclipsed by secondary performers in "Emma."

The latest Austen film is the least Austen film

By Richard von Busack

THE LATEST in the parade of Jane Austen films issuing forth from England seems like the weakest, but I'm not sure whether this is so by order of arrival or rather by inherent problems. Halfway into Emma, however, the film's troubles are all too apparent in weak casting and a meandering script.

Emma turns up not only after Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion (still the best of the lot) and Sense and Sensibility but also in the wake of the comedy Clueless, which borrowed liberally from Austen's 1816 novel. Strangely, Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Emma, looks a little like Clueless star Alicia Silverstone.

Emma tells the tale of the headstrong Emma Woodhouse, who, like Scarlett O'Hara, believes that a woman must have everything. Her best friend is an eligible goose named Harriet (Toni Collette). Harriet receives a perfectly good marriage proposal from a local farmer, but it has been overruled by the ambitious Emma.

Emma's attempt to fix Harriet up with a wan little minister, Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), meets with trouble, especially after Elton misinterprets Emma's interest in him. Actually, though Emma considers herself quite a hand in matchmaking, she overestimates her abilities in this field.

She should be listening to her older friend Mr. Kingsley, who says, "Better to be without sense than to misapply it." Kingsley himself has to let some of the self-regard out of our heroine, in a scene that's as close to an argument as any moment in Austen. Chastened, Emma resolves to quit her interference and is suitably rewarded.

DIRECTOR and writer (of essays as well as scripts) Douglas McGrath worked his way into the movie business through his screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway, a popular comedy that combines a sort of refined broadness with a tendency to patronize the lesser characters. His script and direction for Emma continue this trend toward obviousness--a heavy underscoring of the matters that Austen suggests--that's heightened by the uneven casting.

Harriet in the book was a lesser flower compared to her friend Emma; here, played by Collette, last seen in the Australian film Muriel's Wedding, Harriet is as broad as a barn door and noticeably dumb. It doesn't do to compare a young and untried actor with a first-rank one, but in the scene in which Collette weeps over a box of puppies because their eyes remind her of the spaniel-like gaze of her lost love Mr. Elton, I couldn't help imaging how Emma Thompson would have handled the business. Instead of a messy torrent of tears, perhaps Thompson would have played it with a bitten lip--her magnificent eyes clouding--and that wonderful "Statue of Tragedy" face that she has demonstrated in farce.

Paltrow is just adequate in the title role, making an indistinct impression, but she's eclipsed by the subsidiary characters. Polly Walker's enigmatic Miss Fairfax, Emma's nemesis, demonstrates how to say much with a few words, deflecting Emma's gossiping questions like a master politician (or like a professional film star, for that matter). Walker is an actress in too short supply on screen.

The same is true (despite an unpleasant mane of sausage curls) of Juliette Stevenson, who alienates one and all as the woman Elton was stupid enough to marry. The most inspired moment of the movie is the sequence in which Stevenson addresses the camera, as if it were a party guest that she'd cornered.

Emma isn't picturesque. The interiors seem to be illuminated by colored patio lights, and there isn't much to capture the eye. In interviews, McGrath has said that American audiences love British landscapes, but to this American they seem like so many misty postcards unless they're helping to tell the story, and Emma lacks immediacy as it is.

Unless someone is planning to film Northanger Abbey--and someone probably is--this will be the end of the Austen cycle. It should be acknowledged what a pleasure it was to see a women's world on screen over the past year or so. One of the great shames of movies lately is how little they're giving women. These Austen adaptations rectified that oversight for a time, turning up as alternatives to cinema that embodied the spirit of young men spoiling for a fight--of which one is far, far wearier than one is of sunbonnets, sheep and English ethnic skirts.

Emma (PG rating; 112 min), directed and written by Douglas McGrath, based on the novel by Jane Austen, photographed by Ian Wilson and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette.

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro.

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