I May Have Lost My Heart, But Not My Self Control: Emma (1996)

It should have come to no surprise to me that in trying to include a particularly diverse set of films for my month of women in film that I would run into some less than stellar movies.  I had high hopes for Emma considering that it possesses a ton of actors for whom I think highly of, not to mention that it fancied itself, and even claims to exist within the same vein as Clueless, a film I caught up with last year to much elation.  While Emma is certainly a film that exists within the framework of satire, it is hardly on the same level as Amy Heckerling's masterpiece.  Of course, both are based off of the same Jane Austen novel, yet where Heckerling's film fully commits to the absurdity of the narrative, particularly its being situated within the madness of nineties valley speak, Douglas McGrath seems far too concerned with keeping some sort of artistic distance to truly do the narrative justice.  It appears that, despite all the clear mocking of gender divides and marital expectations which exist within the narrative, and to some degree the original text, Emma, the film, fails in its desire to necessarily exist within the romantic side of a romantic comedy.  This is all not to suggest that Emma is a terrible movie, this is far from the case, but simply adapting a novel of the same name, does not automatically place you on the same level as the magnificent satire that is Clueless.  I understand very much that this intends to be a period piece and desires to adhere to the stylistic limitations of the era, not to mention the social mores, but McGrath clearly takes liberties in making Emma, as a character, seem willfully ignorant and purposefully destructive of those around her, all in some blind ambition to prove that she excels at her rather arbitrarily chosen field of matchmaker, for which she holds mild success.  Nothing screams empowerment towards the female figure put on display and possessing of the narratives title and I am by no means suggesting that Jane Austen was the most ideal of feminist icons, yet, this film was made right on the coattails of Clueless, yet fails so desperately to find a fresh and realized voice in relation to its inspiration.  Tragically, Emma is a film that suffers the woe of attempting to cash in on the success of a previous film (think about all the terrible quirky films that emerged post Napoleon Dynamite) and the real shame lies in the fact that it could have been so much more.

Emma, as the title, and the clear reference to Jane Austen's novel suggests, centers on the life of Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) a decidedly optimistic and assuredly aware young woman who fancies herself an expert matchmaker and knower of all things romantic.  Coming fresh off the success of a courtship she helped implement, she considers herself prepared to create another success story with the local town vicar Mr. Elton (Alan Cummings) and Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) a somewhat mousy, yet attractive woman with whom Emma is a good friend.  However, even with Emma's rather blatant direction, it is discovered that Harriet finds herself attracted to a town farmer named Robert Martin (Edward Woodall) to which Emma contests, thinking it is societal suicide on the part of Harriet.  Fully aware of her problematic meddling, Emma's family friend George Knightley (Jeremy Northam) attempts to dissuade her actions and when he realizes that Emma willfully ignores his suggests, notes that Mr. Elton has had his eyes on a woman from a family just outside of town, leaving Harriet to make a fool of herself in her attempts to attract the vicar.  Into the picture enters the young man named Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) much to the adoring eyes of Emma who becomes infatuated with his suave attitude and genteel charms, yet when Frank takes a liking to another woman, Emma's already crumbling assumptions of matchmaking worsen considerably.  Things become romantically intensified between Emma and George, realizing that they see each other more as platonic friends and after a respite on the part of George after a falling out between the two, Emma finds herself missing his presence considerably.  The two agree to marry, much to the initial rage of Harriet who eventually works things out with Mr. Martin and each couple is happily married by the films closing.

The film suffers from its confusion about whether it wants to exude modernity or embrace the traditions of the period in which it is set.  Of course, this is not entirely McGrath's fault as he had similar ideas to that of Clueless, but was simply late to the game, yet the execution of the film is problematic.  As it stands, Emma is decidedly a film about logical men navigating the spaces of ill-conceived plots on the part of desirous women, particularly Emma who seems to think herself of creating love in even the unlikeliest of places.  While she claims at multiple points to be concerned with notions logical behavior, her concerns seem far more tied to economic safety and advancement than anything that could be defined as logical.  In fact, she deals with situations illogically for the most part, avoiding contact and forcing men tied to religious devotions into the marriage pool.  The film seems, initially, to be doing so with some sense of irony which should allow viewers to distance themselves from Emma and critique her actions, yet when viewers are asked at points to empathize with her and feel bad for her situation, it comes to the forefront that she is intended to be a likeable protagonist, and a problematic one at that.  I hate to keep drawing comparisons to the better Clueless, but in that film Silverstone's character is detached from the situation and capable of commenting on all the terribleness existing within her life and interactions, where as Paltrow's Emma is as wide-eyed and ignorant about her involvement in her own oppression and terrible life choices as she is about her ability to create love.  Emma wants to be really hip and cool in what it is trying to say, unfortunately, it never achieves the success its predecessors filmically and textually managed to do so.

Key Scene:  I don't know, I guess the dancing is nice...

This is an outright pass for me, I cannot think of any legitimate reason why you should feel obliged to check it out yourself.

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