Long before Thornton Wilder’s Dolly Levi, there was Jane Austen’s EMMA. Austen was all the rage in the mid-1990s, a trend that began with Ang Lee’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and the BBC’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE miniseries. In EMMA, Gwyneth Paltrow stars in her breakout title role as a matchmaker with the best of intentions, whose meddling often goes awry. But as with all Austen stories, everyone pairs up with their proper suitor and lives happily ever after.
Comedies of manners are always difficult to pull off, but Douglas McGrath’s script and lively direction make this one of the breezier and funnier of the Austen adaptations. And no one can fault the cast–from Paltrow’s star turn and Jeremy Northam’s suitor, to Toni Collette as the shy Harriet and Sophie Thompson as the poor, yet verbose, Miss Bates.
The film landed in the Oscar history books when Rachel Portman became the first female composer to win for Original Score in the Academy Award’s seventy-year history. What made the win even more astounding is that a little independent film from Miramax (who was still considered independent back then) beat out the seemingly unbeatable combination of Disney animation and Alan Menken’s music in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.
Delicately orchestrated for mainly woodwinds and strings, many of the harmonies were founded on old English folk tunes such as “Greensleeves”. The score has “more romantic music or more dance-like music to make it move on,” said Portman in an interview at the time, “and then there’s more subtle, broken-up music which is there gently guiding the audience to know that there is game-playing going on.” The clarinet plays a rare and particularly large role in the score. Its stealthy quality represents Emma’s machinations and turns lyrical when representing her good intentions.
Portman’s music has a simplicity and purity that never overwhelms the witty dialogue and underscores the sweetness of the characters even when the harsh realities of class divisions rear their ugly heads. And when the strings swell as Emma and Mr. Knightley (Northam) realize their love for each other, I defy you not to be moved.
EMMA is one of the finest Austen adaptations and Paltrow, in particular, is a real delight. Portman’s score is very much in her distinctive style that we have heard many times before and since. But while other composers have tried to emulate that style, few can match her delicacy and poignancy.