(Douglas McGrath, USA, 1996)


This rendering of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma has all the delight of good gossip.

Emma (winningly played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is a compulsive matchmaker. Her intuitions are not often wise, and nor do they seem entirely well-intentioned. But the real, acute pain begins to arise in Emma’s heart when she sees that everyone around her – fluttery Harriet (Toni Collette), sensible Mrs Weston (Greta Scacchi), even the obnoxiously narcissistic Mrs Elton (Juliet Stevenson) – appear to be finding the path to love quicker and more successfully than she can. What a bother it all is for Emma!

My head started spinning back and forth between three sites of romance and romantic comedy in the movies. While watching this adaptation of Emma, I naturally thought of the previous year’s terrific teen movie, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), very loosely a contemporary take on Emma. And when I tried to get my brain around another American twenty-something relationship comedy, She’s the One (Edward Burns, 1996), I kept flashing back to Austen. Teen-something and twenty-something, screwball comedy and comedy of manners, past and present social settings: they all became a blur in my mind.

Since I believe that popular cinema encourages such pervasive blurring between different times, genres and topics, I want to follow a particular thread through this network.

These films all concern the problem of what Sigmund Freud called object choice or, to put it a little less clinically, the choice of a romantic or marital partner. Object choice as a burning topic in popular cinema is something I have examined elsewhere in relation to the Female Gothic, in films as diverse as the Jekyll & Hyde tale Mary Reilly (Stephen Frears, 1996) and Spike Lee’s portrait of a modern, urban woman, Girl 6 (1996).

In the Female Gothic genre, there is almost always a woman poised precariously and nervously between two men: one promises familiarity and security, the other hot and dangerous thrills. In these tales, the central woman’s very self – her identity, her ego, her future, her destiny – is on the line, as she courts both fulfilment and various kinds of perdition.

Jane Austen’s world of female romance is, of course, not at all Gothic. In some of her stories, we have central women characters suspended between two, maybe three or more possible men. The tone of the plot, and its moves, are kept much lighter. The steps whereby our heroine finally chooses her love object can be captivating, even a little heart-stopping. But they don’t add up to a typically Gothic gauntlet or trial.

Austen’s novels are comedy more than drama, and this Emma, like Ang Lee’s version of Sense and Sensibility (1995), plays up every possible comic aspect to be found in her writing. The comic elements are, in truth, a bit forced, as McGrath milks every last gag, as many times as possible: Emma’s private, wide-eyed reactions, Miss Bates yelling stray words at her deaf mother, Harriet’s red-faced expressions of innocent bewilderment. The result is, at times, tiresome.

But comedy – the comic mode – is always more than just a way of providing handy laughter or lightness to an audience, some way of sweetening the moral or dramatic pill. Comedy is a point of view on the world, and life, and this is certainly the case with what is known as the comedy of manners or comedy of lifestyle.

Looking at it through the frame of Clueless and of many other contemporary romances, Emma indeed brushes up as a lifestyle/manners comedy. In such a comedy, nothing is very deep, everything is deliberately kept superficial and ephemeral. Our ethical decisions, our life paths, our moments of personal truth or revelation are all presented in a touching but almost flippant way. It once occurred to me that, where drama proper is the realm of guilt, unconscious drives, searing, passionate desires and psychoses, the comedy of manners is about more fleeting kinds of everyday problems: shame and embarrassment, misunderstandings, poise and politeness, ordinary neuroses.

Romantic object choice in a Gothic narrative is a tortured, life-and-death process. In a comedy of manners, it is an altogether sunnier business; possible partners come and go, file past as in a parade, are toyed and flirted with, considered – until, finally, a civilised decision is made as to the best available candidate. Austen’s novels typically rest, as Gabrielle Finnane has suggested, upon “a variety of men and their contrast to her heroines”. (1) So Emma offers the usual male parade of fops, charmers and enigmatic types – men who are variously debunked or idealised from a female perspective. The sensitive Mr Knightly (Jeremy Northam), the romantic Churchill (Ewan McGregor) or the pale Mr Elton (Alan Cumming) – which is to be the proper object choice in the affections of an Austen heroine? How are these men to be distributed among the various leading women, with their various temperaments and needs?

There is a sense – not necessarily an ugly or ignoble sense – that these men who file past Emma, or past Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless, are hardly three-dimensional people at all: they are almost like fashion-accessories, vying for the role of the guy that women would most want to be seen with in public. And the final choice of object rests sometimes not on who is the most handsome, alluring or brilliant but – more modestly – on who is most bearable, the least painless and troublesome guy to pass the time with. I think of this somewhat brittle, but nonetheless completely recognisable and valid, world-view of the comedy of manners.

Naturally, there are blunders along the way in the Austen-style romances: misadventures and crossed wires that cause a certain amount of pain to the individual and to the community. Communities, tight-knit social groups, are crucially important to this kind of comedy, whereas they are not so important in Gothic dramas that more keyed to the inner tremors shaking an individual. But, finally, after the errors and misreadings, everything settles down; the choices are made. There might be a little irony in the air, some sense of roads not taken and opportunities missed, some little bit of damage to secondary characters, maybe the shadow of some hovering, unfinished business – but, basically, it’s all’s well that ends well. And here something else enters that blurry crowd or network in my mind of old novels and new movies: the films of the French master Éric Rohmer, with his several series titled “Moral Tales”, “Comedies and Proverbs” and “Tales of the Four Seasons”.

Many commentators have furrowed their brows trying to make some sense of the mid 1990s Austen revival – usually gesturing vaguely toward “nostalgic appeal”. But the appeal of Emma is clearly dual-edged. On the one hand, McGrath flatters our modern, sophisticated understanding of relations between the sexes: we are asked to savour every complicated, camouflaged manoeuvre of these hapless characters with an indulgent sense of irony (again, Rohmer-style). On the other hand, these Austen-derived tales work for today’s audience like chaste Hollywood love stories did in the 1930s and ‘40s: all the hands-off, courtly intrigue makes for tremendous romantic and sexual tension. By the end of these travails, even a single, intense look or kiss is enough to trigger the immense relief of a blessed, happy ending.

Perhaps this is the basis of the very particular nostalgia these films occasion. They do not, in my view, express a longing for the actual life and times that Austen described – for who among us would really want to go back and live in that world? Rather, the longing that these films express is for the enjoyment (and indulgence) of a particular kind of storytelling, one that tempers intrigue and melodrama with discretion and restraint; even a certain willed repression. It is that repression – sublimation might be the better, more exact term – which really generates the charge and the thrill of the tale. This amounts to a cultural-revival phenomenon that is assuredly not – at least, not entirely – the “old-fashioned humanist storytelling with moral lessons and three-dimensional characters” line on the Austen revival with which journalists love to bore us to death.

McGrath works hard to make his adaptation as rapid and cinematic as possible. Most of his ingenuity has gone into scene transitions: the crackling, witty ways that the first words of a new scene continue, complement or reverse the final words of the previous scene. So it is inevitable, in the unstoppable flood of journalistic and academic words devoted to the Austen revival, that Emma will be endlessly compared to Heckerling’s inspired work on Clueless.

In truth, there is not much in common between the two films, beyond a broad similarity in plot and situation. (2) But if comparisons must be made, then I cast my vote: Clueless is undoubtedly the superior film, livelier, sharper and more intricate in its comedy of manners. Nonetheless Emma is, on its own terms, a modest treat.


1. Gabrielle Finnane, “Remarks on Jane Austen and the Period Film”, Metro, no. 106 (1996), pp. 4-12. All issues of Metro and associated publications from the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) are now collected in an online archive accessible on subscription. back

2. An especially brilliant and surprising take on this standard comparison is offered by Lesley Stern in “Emma in Los Angeles: Clueless as a Remake of the Book and the City”, Australian Humanities Review, no. 7 (August 1997). back

© Adrian Martin November 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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