Emma (Douglas McGrath)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Be advised that there seem to be two very dissimilar prints of Emma floating around out there. One of them apparently features a delightful, star-making performance by Gywneth Paltrow, an appealing supporting cast, and the same degree of wit and/or emotional complexity that made last year's troika of Austen adaptations (Clueless, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility) so memorable and entertaining. I didn't see that one...though most of the professional critics must have, since they're all raving about it. I got stuck with the other one -- the one in which the gifted Paltrow is uncharacteristically bland, the supporting roles are hopelessly miscast, and Austen's timeless narrative is rendered nearly unwatchable by neophyte director McGrath's total lack of either sense or sensibility. Or could it be that there's just the one version, and that most American critics have been conditioned to drool at the sight of the words "based on the novel by Jane Austen"? At any rate, this is a textbook example of how not to adapt an Austen novel for the screen. To wit: Don't apply an anachronistic and uniquely American tone to a work from 19th-century England...or, if you must, have the sense to rethink the material completely, as Amy Heckerling did with Clueless, a liberal adaptation of Emma which is superior to this "faithful" one in every possible way. Don't imagine that you can improve on Austen's sense of humor by adding crappy one-liners to her dialogue, nor that you can achieve greater audience empathy by yanking with both hands on the viewer's tear ducts (for the record, Emma does not break down in tears in the novel when chastised by Mr. Knightley for her insensitivity; in fact, she argues with him). Don't cast an actor who looks like he's close to Emma's age as a character who's supposed to be nearly twice as old as she is (I don't know how old Jeremy Northam is, but he looks far too young, and behaves far too much like a recent college graduate, to be credible as Knightley), and don't further litter the screen with performers who seem ill at ease with the period (Paltrow, Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor, Greta Scacchi, Polly Walker -- even the brilliant Juliet Stevenson, who camps it up as Mrs. Elton in a singularly unappealing manner). Do, on the other hand, hire Sophie Thompson, who, as the lovable chatterbox Ms. Bates (a part quite different from the one she played in Persuasion last year) is the only redeeming facet of this misfire...along with the inherent pleasures of Austen's story, which even a writer/director as incompetent as McGrath cannot entirely efface.