If love makes the world go round, the dizzily whirling globe in the opening title credits of Douglas McGrath’s Emma is a clear statement of intent regarding the film’s theme.
And when we see the globe is a painted model spinning on a thread in the hand of Emma (delightfully effervescent Gwyneth Paltrow), it’s clear how Emma sees herself — pulling the strings, orchestrating the happy convergences that make the world go round. A later archery scene suggests Emma as a distaff Cupid — while pointedly suggesting that her aim may not be as unerring as her serene self-assurance would suggest.
In retelling Austen’s story, McGrath pokes gentle fun at the over-refinements of privileged gentility, though not without enjoying its trappings and honoring its best aspirations. These best aspirations are ideally embodied by Emma’s platonic friend Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), who quite lives up to his name. While remaining firmly rooted in the social world and class system of his day, Knightley is able to be deeply critical of snobbery and presumption without in the least stepping outside his Victorian milieu. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves his fierce admonition to Emma regarding the obligations of compassion and charity owed by those with greater privilege toward those weaker or less privileged than themselves.
Ultimately, though, Emma is a lighthearted romp — a romantic fairy tale set in a genteel world in which life consists of parties, teas, picnics, and other social engagements, in which who will marry whom is the bottom line of nearly every conversation, in which few things worse than a cold or a tiresome conversation ever happen, and in which more or less everyone is eventually destined to happiness.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.