“Emma” 1995’s Version of Social Class Distinctions

“Emma” 1995’s Version of Social Class Distinctions

Emma 1995Columbia/Miramax feature film (120 minutes); Directed by Douglas McGrath; Screenplay by Douglas McGrath; Produced by Patrick Cassavetti and Steven Haft

Cast:

Gwyneth Paltrow…………………………….Emma Woodhouse

Jeremy Northam……………………………..Mr. George Knightley

Toni Collette………………………………….Harriet Smith

James Cosmo………………………………..Mr. Weston

Greta Scaacchi……………………………….Mrs. Weston

Alan Cumming………………………………..Mr. Elton

Juliet Stevenson………………………………Mrs. Elton

Denys Hawthorne…………………………….Mr. Woodhouse

Sophie Thompson……………………………Miss Bates

Phyllida Law…………………………………..Mrs. Bates

Edward Woodall………………………………Mr. Martin

Kathleen Byron……………………………….Mrs. Goddard

Brian Capron………………………………….John Knightley

Karen Westwood……………………………..Isabella Knightley

Polly Walker…………………………………..Jane Fairfax

Ewan McGregor………………………………Frank Churchill

Angela Down………………………………….Mrs. Cole

John Franklyn-Robbins………………………Mr. Cole

Rebecca Craig………………………………..Miss Martin

Ruth Jones……………………………………Bates Maid

With an American playing the lead role and an American director and screenwriter, this adaptation of Austen’s Emma is the Americanization of Austen. Despite the use of period costumes and picturesque British locations, Douglas McGrath’s is a Hollywood lighthearted version of Austen’s satire. Although subtler than Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” the film addresses social stratification based on income and education.

The Emma we meet in this adaptation is said to have an “anachronistic snap bordering on irreverence.” (New York Times) In the NYTimes article, Janet Maslin says, “This Emma is the centerpiece of a broadly amusing film in which characters expound earnestly about the merits of celery root or the horrors of having a sore throat. In the midst of such stupefying refinement, a demure schemer like Emma can affect a pose of pampered idleness while vigorously working her wiles. Though Emma, like the film version of Sense and Sensibility, is milder and more narrowly marriage-minded than Austen’s fiction (and has less weight than Persuasion, still the most moving and acute feature-length Austen adaptation), it has enough satirical edge to amuse audiences weary of big-screen explosions and computer wizardry. The whole film, like its central character, thrives on subverting well-bred fatuousness and pondering the tiniest mysteries of love. Surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, Ms. Paltrow’s Emma presides daintily over these goings-on while managing to remain blissfully oblivious to much of what surrounds her. The planet spins (quite literally, in a clever opening credit sequence), but Emma is content to occupy herself with the most minuscule matters. The film is able both to satirize and enjoy such myopia, just as it savors the absurd frippery of its characters’ costumes and indulgences. It’s one of Mr. McGrath’s little jokes to seldom depict servants here, even though an absurd set of props appears on the manor lawn every time a new form of dabbling — archery or stitching or writing or sketching — is under way.”

Douglas McGrath, who wrote “Bullets Over Broadway” with Woody Allen and held a stint on Saturday Night Live, walks a very thin line between social satire and melodrama. McGrath makes fun of the snobbery of the upper class. We see a bumbling Harriet Smith knocking over baskets and food when she visits the poor with Emma. When Knightley says he would prefer to stay home where it was “cozy,” the camera backs away to show the audience the extent of Donwell Abbey. When Emma’s aim with a bow and arrow falters, Knightley says “Please do not shoot my dogs.”emma_gwyneth_paltrow_movie_archery

Highbury’s upper echelons are looked upon with little sympathy. There is nothing to indicate the obligations and responsibilities a man would have to his tenants and servants These people are the target of the screenwriter/director’s barbs. We see Emma’s outrage that Mr. Elton would aspire to claim her to wife. In reality, he is a gentleman (although one without land) and she is a lady. As Elizabeth Bennet tells Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, “We are equals.” We view the childlike petulance of Emma when she pines for an invitation to the Coles’s party while declaring them beneath her. Instead of treating the differences in rank with sympathy or even with historical accuracy, the characters who act upon the gradations appear as foolish.

The audience is simply asked to accept the “rightness” of rank. There is little emphasis on the poor or the servant class. We do not see the dilemma the Box Hill Picnic scene would create for the servants who had to lug everything to the site. Other versions address the duties of the servant class and this scene in particular.

I found in this film that the director used what we find common in society: The “beautiful” are forgiven for their transgressions. Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of Emma Woodhouse makes it easier for the audience to like her character, who. in truth, is easy to dislike because Ms. Paltrow’s comely face appeals to the audience. Even when the character Emma acts in a most disgraceful fashion, the audience sees her as sympathetic. Ms. Paltrow’s appearance reminds the audience that she is a “Greek goddess” (in hair style and dress) to be forgiven all her sins.

Emma-1996-3Meanwhile Jeremy Northam’s portrayal of Knightley is one that conveys sensitivity and a certain vulnerability. He is equal in looks to Paltrow and the female audience responded as such to his acting. Northam’s style is more understated than we see from Mark Strong in the 1995 TV movie of the same year. The film’s script provides Northam several moments of quipped irony in the dialogue, something he does quite well.

Emma-1996-period-films-14285184-300-225_zps952bd6f1I have adored Toni Collette in several roles. In my opinion, her portrayal of Harriet Smith elicits more sympathy than her counterparts. Her scenes leave the audience considering her as a pathetic character. Collette’s Harriet gushes too much, laughs too loudly, and weeps uncontrollably at her disappointments.

As a whole, this version of Emma takes a different notion of class structures than does Austen’s more divergent definitions of “class.” McGrath chose to underline his offhand “sarcastic” look at social class with the occasional gag. Highbury’s society is open for more than one joke. For example, we return to the bumbling Harriet Smith’s call of mercy on the poor (which I mentioned above). Instead of administering to the poor, she leaves their few belongings a mess. 

The film’s mise-en-scène (the arrangement of scenery and stage properties) do little to establish social class. The viewer is often confronted with a framed image of characters of varying class distinctions being equal. Their positions in the framed image do not give the viewer a visual clue as to who is dominant. How often do we see Emma and Harriet in an “equal” position – walking side by side, sitting on opposite ends of the hearth, both women bowing their heads into each other’s laps (2 separate scenes), etc. The set director chooses to place the actors within window seats or on equal levels, which levels the class distinctions. We see Mr. Martin dressed as a gentleman rather than a laborer. We see lavish meals, lighting that defies candles, pristine lawns, etc., all of which reinforces class distinctions, but which are not realistic for a country squire’s home.

Some sections of the novel are minimized. In Austen’s tale, Emma is flabbergasted that Mr. Elton would think himself equal to her. In the film, Emma’s indignation is turned into a “lesson” of sorts. She is shamed by her error in judging his supposed interest in Harriet. There is also the lengthy “parting of the ways” between Emma and Harriet found in the novel. In the film, Harriet rushes from the room upon learning of Emma’s engagement to Knightley. The next scene shows the two women coming to a new understanding with Harriet’s own engagement. Please note that Emma kisses Harriet’s cheek after her wedding ceremony in the last scene. I doubt this would have happened during this class conscience period.

96MiramaxEmmaEmmaFrankColesPartyIn this adaptation, McGrath greatly reduces the roles of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. In truth, it would have been more appropriate that Emma to choose Jane Fairfax as friend over Harriet Smith. Do you recall Sir Walter Eliot’s opinion of the name “Smith” as a character? “[Sir Walter speaks]  “A widow Mrs Smith lodging in Westgate Buildings! A poor widow barely able to live, between thirty and forty; a mere Mrs Smith, an every-day Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world, to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot, and to be preferred by her to her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland! Mrs Smith! Such a name!” (17.18) Is it not convenient that Harriet is also a “Smith”?

Ewan McGregor emphasizes the “charm” of Frank Churchill. He is teasing in a romantic sort of way, most obviously seen in the scene where Churchill joins Emma at the pianoforte for a duet. For his part, the song is directed to Jane Fairfax. Because the lyrics speak of Ireland there are undertones of Jane and Mr. Dixon. Moreover, Churchill’s character attempts to make Jane jealous with references to the maid with the “golden hair.” Instead, Emma is jealous of Jane Fairfax’s accomplishments for Emma is accustomed to being the one by which all others are judged.

Alan Cummings as Mr. Elton is an excellent. He balances the comic elements of Elton’s character with the serious clergyman persona. He plays the obsequious suppliant, the rejected suitor, the vindictive revenger, and the henpecked husband, each with perfect inflection and nuances to make them believable.

11 Responses to “Emma” 1995’s Version of Social Class Distinctions

  1. Jeremy Northam is my favorite Knightley, easily. I agree that this version is more visually than intellectually pleasing, but the view is magnificent. I am that kind of curmudgeon that still prefers the 1972 BBC version over any other Emma adaptation. It has major faults, I know, but it leaves me feeling the most satisfied. I enjoy all the versions for varying reasons. I think Emma transfers to film well, unlike Persuasion or Mansfield, for both of which I’m still waiting for a definitive adaptation.

  2. Emma is my favorite Austen for starters, I own all of the adaptations. I enjoy this one for the humor and for Jeremy Northam. He is “my” Knightley. 🙂 Whenever I watch other adaptations, or books, he is the Knightley I see in my mind. Gwyneth Paltrow receives so much criticism for her portrayal, but I think she did a bang up job for this version. As you pointed out, she wasn’t cast to be dramatic and authentically British Austen. Love this post!

    • I like this one, Stephanie, as long as I am just “watching,” and not thinking. Paltrow was very attractive then and was pleasing to the eye. Northam was more than pleasing to the eye. LOL!

  3. Definitely a fun adaptation of Emma. I loved when Knightley told Emma not to shoot his dogs! Northam did play an excellent Knightley. I can hear in my head the way he said, ” I rode through the rain.” And I can picture the expression that was on his fsce when he said it. So sweet.

    Ewan played his role as Churchill very well, but I have to agree with Joana a about the hair! ?

    • As a person who taught media literacy for several years, I am always fascinated by the choices the directors make in the films. What is cut out and what is included varies greatly.

  4. I loved this variation, the comedy, the styles and choice of location. This film handled one particular scene the best of any version of the films. It was where Mr. Knightley and Emma kissed for the first time. It was not a lip lock that we normally see in movies…Emma was an innocent and that was the most romantic first kiss of any of the variations. I loved the reference to persuasion also. That seems to be an Austen theme. Poor Harriet was persuaded numerous times and finally was able to come to her HEA. Bless her heart. Excellent post.

  5. Thu is the first adaptation of Emma I have seen and found it humorous. I am at present watching the 1996 A&E version and am finding I dislike the manipulation and find it lacks humor.

  6. One of my favourite Emma adaptations! All were lovely in their special ways and what a Mr Knightley Jeremy Northam was! Not too fond of Ewan’s hair, what were they thinking? 😀

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