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Sweet Jane

And the hits just keep on coming from Jane Austen, the early 19th-century novelist who's become a late 20th-century hot property. In the past two years, we've seen a highly regarded film of her Persuasion, a well-received miniseries of her Pride and Prejudice and an Oscar-winning adaptation of her Sense and Sensibility. In a class by itself: Clueless, a somewhat overrated but undeniably clever attempt to update and Americanize Austen's Emma, with music-video star Alicia Silverstone cast as a Beverly Hills version of Austen's meddlesome matchmaker.

Douglas McGrath (a native of Midland, Texas, who once worked as a writer for Saturday Night Live) is a great deal more faithful to the same source material in Emma, an exceptionally enjoyable comedy of manners that marks the director's debut as a feature filmmaker. McGrath, who collaborated with Woody Allen on the screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway and has also worked extensively as a journalist (Vanity Fair, the New Yorker) and a political satirist (the New Republic), has the sort of eclectic resume that's increasingly rare in this age, when it seems that most films are made by film-school graduates who bring little to their work other than an extensive knowledge of other films.

McGrath may have a bit to learn when it comes to camera placement and editing rhythms, but his sharp eye for revealing details and his bemused appreciation of human foibles serve him well. He's very good at vividly conveying the inner dynamics and quirky mores of an insular society in which manners matter more than passion, and gossip is valued only slightly less than oxygen.

Emma is merry and mischievous fun with a sharply satirical edge. To be sure, it lacks the gravity and emotional resonance of Sense and Sensibility, but this isn't entirely McGrath's fault. In Sensibility -- both the book and Ang Lee's movie adaptation -- the central characters are sisters for whom happily-ever-aftering is not a sure thing. To elevate themselves from not-so-genteel poverty, each needs a helping hand from a marriage-minded man. It's clear that, given their situation, not finding a husband would lead to a fate far worse than simple heartbreak.

In Emma, however, the stakes aren't nearly so high. There's an episode early in Austen's novel, faithfully reproduced in McGrath's film, that has our heroine airily dismissing a friend's concern about Emma's unmarried status. Emma says, in effect, that only poor women (such as, presumably, the sisters in Sense and Sensibility) have to worry about financial security. Notes Emma: "A single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable!" And in her case, even a good marriage would mean a loss of stature. "Never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important, so always first and always right in any man's eyes," she says, "as I am in my father's."

Naturally, Emma forgets these haughty words once she falls truly, madly and deeply in love. And just as naturally, her self-absorbed fatuousness is an integral part of her character. She's a spoiled little busybody who's firmly convinced that the world revolves around her, who rouses herself from pampered idleness only to interfere with other people's lives. (One of the funniest running gags, on the page and on the screen, is her unfailing ineptitude at matchmaking.) Emma would be well-nigh unbearable were it not for her many and varied saving graces: her rapier-sharp wit, her generosity of spirit, her willingness to acknowledge her culpability when, inadvertently or otherwise, she causes pain. (Note the way she tearfully responds to the harsh criticism of a close confidant after she has thoughtlessly, and brutally, mocked a family friend.)

And yet for all that, Emma never has to face the possibility of genuine tragedy. Her problems, while involving, are about as weighty as those that complicate the lives of characters in screwball comedies. I'll leave it to the academics to debate whether Emma or Sense and Sensibility is the better novel, but of the two movies, it's quite obvious that Sense and Sensibility is a complex work of art, while Emma is no more -- but on the other hand certainly no less -- than a grandly civilized entertainment.

Gwyneth Paltrow, a fetching young actress who currently claims as many magazine covers as Matthew McConaughey, is a splendid Emma. As a well-bred young beauty with a whim of iron, Paltrow evidences an abundance of grace, verve and self-assurance, qualities that enable the American-born actress to make herself at home in the provincial English setting without visible strain. On the strength of this performance, Paltrow has been likened to a young Katharine Hepburn. Usually, such comparisons are little more than a publicist's wishful thinking. In this case, however, they don't seem far-fetched.

Among the supporting players that sparkle in her orbit, standouts include Jeremy Northam as Knightly, a close friend whose blunt-spoken honesty isn't always to Emma's liking; Toni Collette as a plain but good-hearted lass whom Emma wants to see well-married; Juliet Stevenson as an opinionated minx who seeks to upstage Emma; and Ewan McGregor as a handsome rogue who is too dashing to be trusted. It's worth noting that this is the same Ewan McGregor who gives a shockingly ingratiating performance as a manic heroin addict in Trainspotting. Paltrow is the one getting all the publicity, and deservedly so, as Emma goes into wide release. But we'll likely be hearing just as much about McGregor in the months and years ahead.

-- Joe Leydon

Emma.
Directed by Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow.
Rated PG.
121 minutes.

 
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