In 1996 the Jane Austen film fad reached it’s height with rare phenomenon: Two films of the same book premiering in the same year! A wonderful bonus for Emma fans, this dual presentation by Miramax and A&E spawned endless comparison of the two films, actors and scripts. While neither movie presents the whole of the book (Of the three, Emma1 actually does the best job of this.) the two 1996 versions provide such varied scenes that they are hardly telling the same story! Miramax’s focuses more on the Emma/Mr. Knightley theme while the A&E version focuses on the Jane/Frank and Emma/Harriet themes.
Written and directed by humorist Douglas McGrath (Saturday Night Live), the Miramax version presents a funny, lush, almost fairytale version of Emma. Originally planning a 1990’s update of the book, McGrath changed his script when he discovered that Clueless was already in the works. Then, near the completion of the writing process, his mother called to tell him that Emma Thompson was just then filming her own version of the story! Full of fear, he called his agent, only to be told three wonderful words- “Sense and Sensibility”. When the script was finally presented to Miramax executives and asked who should direct the film, McGrath suggested himself. Though this was his directorial debut, he did a fine job and clearly enjoyed himself! “I come from a family of hard workers, so I worked hard to convince them that bringing Emma to the screen was not a cushy job. After all, I had to snuggle up to a warm fire and reread the novel, which is laced with wit and romance. I had to sit through auditions with brilliant actors who made me laugh and cry. I had to shoot the film in ravishing English countryside. Then I had to watch it over and over and choose between a superb performance and a performance that was superb. It was draining work, but for Austen’s Emma, I was willing to sacrifice my comfort. After all, it is a classic.”
Jeremy Northam, who played Mr. Knightley also enjoyed his role: “I was being considered for another part and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, no Knightley is the part I really want to be seen for.’ When I met the director, we got on very well and we talked about everything except the film. At the end of it, he said he thought Knightley was the part for me, so I didn’t have to bring up the issue at all.”
Part of why this film works, is that it includes several real elements. Gwyneth Paltrow (21) and Jeremy Northam (35) really were the ages they were acting! Real-life mother and daughter, Phyllida Law (Much Ado About Nothing) and Sophie Thompson (Persuasion) were cast as Mrs. and Miss Bates, though both auditioned for the part of Miss Bates. It is lucky that they were cast at all! Sophie was originally thought too young and Phyllida too old! On her second audition, Sophie Thompson took her hair down and wore glasses, giving an older appearance and winning the part. At the time of the auditions, casting director Mary Selway didn’t even know the two women were related!
Asked about the unusual choice for casting American Gwyneth Paltrow in what was originally to be an all British film, McGrath explains: “I chose her because I’d seen her in [a previous film] and she’d done the most immaculate Texas accent. I grew up in Texas, and when my friends and I would go to the movies, we would just kill ourselves laughing whenever anyone tried to do a Texas accent. But Gwyneth’s regional accent was perfect; she sounded like girls I’d grown up with. So I knew she had a phenomenal ear…..We had many actresses, big and small, who wanted to play this part. The minute she started the read-through, the very first line, I thought, ‘Everything is going to be fine; she’s going to be brilliant’…. We didn’t even open up the audition process, and a lot of actresses were miffed about it….The British actors were all terribly polite, but when we did our first reading it began in an atmosphere of ‘Okay, we’d better help the little American girl with her part.’ Then Gwyneth opened her mouth and spoke her first line. Her accent was perfect and everybody sat up all at once, realizing that not only were they not going to have to help her, they were going to have to race to keep up with her.”
Gwyneth Paltrow won praise from cast and crew, not only for her acting skills, but her open and friendly personality as well. Co-star Northam remarks, “Technically she’s brilliant, but she was also a lot of fun… She just sails through and seems to have a blast doing it, and I think it shows on the screen because there’s a real sense of fun and mischief… I’m not saying there are not things an English actress couldn’t bring to [the role of Emma] but I think Gwyneth brings something which is different. I think by nature she has got a sort of New York, urban attitude… There is a sharpness about Emma and a kind of sharpness about Austen’s writing which is probably more akin to late 20th-century urban sensibility than we might at first believe.” McGrath adds: “The amazing thing about her is that as a rule she can be running around the set, singing, dancing, curled up like a cat, and then the minute action is called, she completely changes. She adopts every feature of a young woman in 19th century England of that breeding and station.”
Other characters include Toni Collette (Sixth Sense) as Harriet Smith, Alan Cumming (Goldeneye) as Mr. Elton, Ewan MacGregor (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) as Frank Churchill, Polly Walker (Enchanted April) as Jane Fairfax and Greta Scacchi (Jefferson in Paris, with Gwyneth Paltrow) as Mrs. Weston.
Worthy of special note is Juliet Stevenson (Cider with Rosie) as Mrs. Elton. Though she gets very little actual on-screen time, she fully embodies the vulgarity innate to her character. Juliet’s brilliant performance is one of the great highlights of this film. Her overbearing obnoxiousness, “with her Mr E, and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery” seem quite from the novel.
The beautiful settings, costumes, and hysterical dialogue, though not always in keeping with the time period, and Rachael Portman’s lush score present quite an attractive whole. The Motion Picture Academy certainly thought so, awarding the film two Oscar nominations, one for Ruth Myer’s gorgeous costumes (which Gwyneth Paltrow described as “Wonderbra meets a nightgown.”) and winning Portman her first Oscar for “Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score” (she has since be nominated twice more, once for Cider House Rules, and once for Chocolat.)
Emma is available on both Video and DVD and runs for 121 minutes. The DVD features chapter
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