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Emma (1996, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alun Cumming)

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In 18th-century England, accomplished socialite Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) turns to matchmaking. Her targets are lowly Harriet Smith (Toni Colette) and the vicar, Mr Elton (Alan Cumming). But Harriet has other plans, having been attracted to a local farmer who then proposes. Emma intercedes and selfishly convinces Harriet to refuse him.

Emma contrives several meetings for Elton and her protégé, but she has failed to notice the vicar’s interests lie not in Harriet, but with her. Mortified, she ignores his overtures and is distracted by the arrival of Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), who she surmises could be Harriet’s second chance. Matters are further confused when Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) launches a charm offensive on Emma, a woman who has ignored her own personal happiness in the pursuit of arranging the loves of others.

As Clueless and Pride and Prejudice proved in the previous year, Austen is highly adaptable, and her themes and conventions remain timeless. McGrath explores the satirical side of the novel while never relenting from its bitter edge – best seen in Emma’s upbraiding of Miss Bates.

Paltrow makes the first of her forays into the mother tongue, and never drops a vowel in a beautifully mannered performance that draws on the talents of her supporting cast. Of the men, Northam emerges with honours while Sophie Thompson wins hearts as the garrulous Miss Bates and pleases UK viewers by appearing with real-life mother Phyllida Law. The only member of the family not to enrol was Emma Thompson, who had a valid excuse: she was shooting Sense and Sensibility.

production details
USA | 121 minutes | 1996

Writer and Director: Douglas McGrath, from the novel by Jane Austen

cast
Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton
Toni Collette as Harriet Smith
Ruth Jones as Bates’ Maid
James Cosmo as Mr. Weston
Denys Hawthorne as Mr. Woodhouse
Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton
Lee Boardman as Dancer (uncredited)
Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley
Kathleen Byron as Mrs. Goddard
Brian Capron as John Knightley
Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill
Karen Westwood as Isabella
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse
Greta Scacchi as Mrs. Weston
Polly Walker as Jane Fairfax
Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates
Phyllida Law as Mrs. Bates
Edward Woodall as Robert Martin
Rebecca Craig as Miss Martin
Angela Down as Mrs. Cole
John Franklyn-Robbins as Mr. Cole

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