I always worry when American actors take on roles in English period dramas. It just gives them free rein to use received pronunciation in that stereotype that they seem so keen on. The stuff of Downton Abbey. The kind of accent that doesn’t have a hint of geography or personal context. Add Gwyneth Paltrow to the mix and it makes everything even more uncomfortable. I’m still haunted by Sliding Doors where she tried to convince us she was British by saying the word “shagging” on repeat. It just didn’t do it for me, so the idea of her getting her Austen on did kind of fill me with dread. But I also felt like I should watch it. After all, I’d already reviewed Clueless back in 2015. As much as I wanted to rewatch that absolute gem of an adaptation, it felt like I was cheating a bit.
Watching this adaptation almost made me rethink my rating for the 2020 adaptation. I felt bad that I’d criticised Anya Taylor-Joy for her performance when the first few lines out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s voice made me violently cringe. But, as the film went on, I became more immune to her performance. Paltrow’s performance has a charm and a lightness that I felt was missing in the most recent adaptation. Taylor-Joy is clearly the stronger actress but there’s more of an edge to her portrayal. Paltrow, though cloying, at least gives her a certain sympathy. Something necessary for such a potentially narcissistic character.
As for the film as a whole, it’s the standard Hollywood approach to a period drama. Emma is the perfect Austen for Hollywood. She is the richest of all of Jane’s heroines which means they can indulge in all of the old English grandeur as much as they want. It is also something of a lighter novel. It still has the satire but more casually. It isn’t bogged down with trying to tear down classism like her other novels. Emma is, compared to the rest of her books, a breezy and fun affair. So everything about the film is quite light and easy. Money isn’t a problem so it’s all romance. This is basically a historic Richard Curtis film.
Something that fits with the fact that the supporting cast is full of great British names. With Ewan McGregor as the mysterious Frank Churchill, Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates, Juliet Stevenson as Mrs Elton, and Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley. The only problem is, none of them makes much of an impression. It’s as if they’ve all ben watered down to match Paltrow’s weaker performance. It could be a genius directorial decision to ensure they don’t overshadow the star but it could equally be because the director doesn’t know what to do with them. Going back to the more recent film, I can’t help but think that the supporting characters had more about them. Nobody in this film makes much of an impression, which feels disappointing.
If the 2020 film felt like it tried to push the mood too far into a darker place, the 1996 film should be criticised for doing the opposite. It’s a lovely and bright romantic comedy but it just feels flat. It could have pushed things a bit more. I’m no Austen fan but this film doesn’t manage to get anywhere near her level of wit. Still, there is a lightness and whimsy to this adaptation that I felt was definitely missing in the new film. While I don’t think that either film gets it right, I do think this edges ever so slightly forwards for me. Though the dance scene between Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn is evidence that they have better chemistry.