Ramblin' man

Emma writer-director Douglas McGrath jumps from Midland to Jane Austen

Of course, Emma does not waste time wondering if she has too much time to waste. She is too busy donning high rubber boots and wading through the lava of unresolved romance all around her: Harriet (Toni Collette from Muriel's Wedding) is the awkward best friend who thinks she loves Mr. Elton (Allan Cumming from Goldeneye), who, in turn, rejects her advances for the moneyed harpy (Juliet Stevenson from Truly, Madly, Deeply) who monopolizes every conversation with faux displays of humility. Emma endeavors to consecrate these love matches while she repels the none-too-subtle advances of Mr. Elton, her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (the dazzlingly handsome Jeremy Northam, a BBC-TV veteran), and the deceitful horseman, Mr. Churchill (Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting). Paltrow not only offers us one of the most seamless British accents ever attempted by an American actor, but also manages to languish without evaporating. As a protagonist who asserts a profound influence on the fate of her supporting characters, Emma must spend a dangerous amount of screen time just thinking. This is a tall order for even the most professional of film actors, but Paltrow's sly, Audrey Hepburnish mug, with eyes that burn, flicker, and glow like coal under different degrees of heat, betrays a three-ring circus of cerebral mischief. It is a star-making performance, and long overdue from an actress who has already proven her mettle negotiating eccentric characterizations in Flesh and Bone and Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle.

How the Brits will react to an American portraying the quintessential heroine of the 19th-century English novel--not to mention an American adapting and directing that novel--is of some concern to Douglas McGrath. He talks about the cloak of Anglo protectiveness pulled tight around Austen: "I remember while we were shooting the movie, a very nasty English journalist--but excuse me, that's redundant, isn't it?--called and started asking questions about the production. Actually, it was just one question she asked over and over: 'Will there be any sex in this film? Have you added sex scenes?'

"Finally, as a joke, I tossed out: 'Actually, we included an orgy in the barnyard among Emma, Knightley, and some of the livestock.' That ended the conversation pretty quickly. Then later on, I picked up a newspaper and saw the woman's byline. 'Americans Are Clueless About Jane Austen' read the title of her piece. Apparently, the English abhor that movie, but I enjoyed it." (McGrath refers to Amy Heckerling's 1995 hit, Clueless, a version of Emma.) McGrath even jokes about adding an opening credit to Emma that reads, "Inspired by the feature film Clueless."

"Whatever brings 'em in," he says.

Emma. Miramax. Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette, Jeremy Northam. Written by Douglas McGrath, from the novel by Jane Austen. Directed by Douglas McGrath. Opens August 9.

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