In England in the 1800s, Emma Woodhouse has beauty, wealth and a loving family - so naturally she's desperate for something to do. However, when she assigns herself the task of matchmaking her new friend, she finds that her best-laid plans can sometimes go horribly wrong...
It amused the dry Jane Austen to describe Emma Woodhouse as her "heroine no one will like". Indeed, the smug self-confidence with which Emma sets about imposing her idea of order on her cosy little world is dangerously close to annoying. That's why what is arguably Austen's most accomplished novel is the hardest to adapt appealingly for the screen.
Amy Heckerling's winning solution was to lift the plot, and deposit it in Beverly Hills as a full-tilt comedy in Clueless. First-time director McGrath, Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway co-writer, overcomes his heroine's foolishness factor with a stunning weapon: Gwyneth Paltrow. Poised, charming, and pretty as a picture, Paltrow's first central role after a dozen increasingly impressive supporting performances verified that she is both a fine, subtle actress and a star.
Emma lives with her doting, dotty papa in a picture book 19th century Dorset village. The young lady of the manor, she is the indulged darling of her small circle and the top girl of local society. Tirelessly but delicately, Paltrow's playing reminds us that she is also very young, good-hearted, well-meaning and, when romantic disaster inevitably strikes, touchingly vulnerable. So when she takes the lower-born, easily led, silly Harriet (Collette) to the bosom of her friendship and determines to marry her off well, Emma's calamitously dogged matchmaking is as funny and excruciating as it is supposed to be.
A good crew boost the brightness of mood while a sharp cast (including Northam as an unusually yummy Mr. Knightly and Juliet Stevenson a scream as the odious Mrs. Elton) twinkle round Paltrow. Only Ewan McGregor, as the dashing Frank Churchill, suffers, landed with a coiffure which suggests he's drifted in from a Dickens novel, but otherwise this has enough smooches and visual jests Austen never thought of to add up to a very sweet and pretty romp.
Coming from a novice director, the film is not as impressive as Sense And Sensibility, but as a light-hearted and energetic comedy of who-loves-who? and small upsets, this works well - and it boasts Paltrow's star-making turn.