An Authoress and a Gentlewoman

Emma director helms filmdom's latest "Dear Jane" letter

With the exception of Mansfield Park and a few minor or unfinished works, all of Jane Austen's fiction has been adapted either for movies or for television within the past two years or so. Though almost two centuries have passed since she's written anything new, Austen's novel-to-film ratio is right up there with Stephen King's. And amid the current Austen fever, a Mansfield production wouldn't be at all surprising.

The new Austen movie is based on Emma, possibly the author's greatest work and probably her funniest. It's about Emma Woodhouse, a "handsome, clever and rich" young woman who spends her time meddling in the romantic affairs of others in the blissful and quite unfounded confidence that she knows what's best for everyone. Having, by luck, helped to arrange a good match for her beloved governess (Greta Scacchi), Emma is certain of her prowess at tidily arranging the marital fortunes of others.

Emma's new special project is landing a high-born husband--the snooty clergyman Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming)--for her dear, rather malleable friend Harriet Smith (Toni Collette). Through all her maneuverings, Emma remains unaware that she's succeeded only in causing Mr. Elton to fall desperately in love with her, not poor Miss Smith. Emma's also rather slow to grasp that she herself is in love with the handsome Mr. Knightley, a longtime family friend. Her feelings for him are only awakened when he dresses her down for committing an embarrassing faux pas toward poor, chatty Miss Bates (wonderfully played by Sophie Thompson).

The new film version is in some ways much like the other recent films based on Austen's work--well-produced, well-acted, respectfully faithful--but it's played more for pace and laughs than for 19th-century elegance, maybe because the adapter-director, Douglas McGrath, isn't some Merchant-Ivory-type period specialist but a journeyman humorist. If the resulting movie is somewhat modest visually, it's happily swift and free of fussiness. A humorist proves refreshingly appropriate to the Austen sensibility.

Says McGrath of his heroine--played with polish by the birdlike Gwyneth Paltrow--"Most 19th-century heroines, most heroines in fiction up to that point, were kind of noble, honest young women who are faced with a series of troubles they must overcome. The thing about Emma is that all the troubles she's faced with, she caused. A matchmaker who's completely inept because she's never been in love--I think that's a very funny idea."

McGrath can lay a more persuasive claim than most makers of period movies to knowing from funny. The Midland, Texas, native and Princeton grad entered show business as a sketch writer for Saturday Night Live (albeit during that classic show's nadir, the 1980-81 season, immediately following the departure of the original cast).

"It [working on SNL] was horrible, really, but I learned a lot," says McGrath. "The good thing about that show is that, as a writer, you really produce your own sketch. You talk to the costumer about what the costumes should be like and the set designer about what the set should look like. The director doesn't do that; it's the writer's responsibility. That helped me a lot. Plus, you talk to the actors about how it should be played."

After SNL, McGrath spent a few years collaborating on screenplays which went unproduced, and writing political humor for magazines, most notably the "Flapjack File" in The New Republic. He wrote the screenplay for Luis Mandoki's terrible remake of Born Yesterday, but what ended up onscreen was, he says, vastly altered from what he wrote. His next film credit was classier: collaborating on the script of Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen.

"He was a great model," McGrath says of his famous writing partner. "Working with him helped me [on Emma] so much because he's ruthless with his material. He doesn't leave anything in merely because it's funny, merely because there's a good camera shot. It always has to serve the story. He dropped scenes out of Bullets that were really funny. But he'd say even if it's funny, sometimes if it makes the movie too long it depletes the audience for another scene that's important. He was a great example to me; we ended up cutting about 25 minutes out of Emma."

The film's brevity--just under two hours--is another indication of McGrath's commitment to it as comic material. So are such insouciant little touches as the gossipy Mrs. Elton (the excellent Juliet Stevenson) addressing a line directly to the camera. Moments like these indicate how at ease McGrath is with this milieu and these characters, despite his American-comedy background.

Did a sketch writer from Midland, Texas, feel any presumption in taking on a masterpiece of English literature?

"No. I felt really in touch with that material, and I think it's partially because in the details it's British, but in the broader sense, it's nothing to do with Britain; in fact, it's a little more romantic than we usually associate with Britain. It's very universal." Apparently so; Amy Heckerling's Clueless of last summer was also based, at times closely, on Emma.

"Sometimes when classics are funny," says McGrath, "it's the way a priest is funny. You just think, 'Okay, good try,' you know, it's funny 'cause they're not supposed to be funny. Whereas with Austen, not only is she funny, and really funny, she's really biting. She just makes me laugh."

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