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Gwyneth Paltrow does Jane Austen in a quintessential Miramax movie

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Jessica Hausner’s peculiar period piece Amour Fou coming to theaters, we extend our hand to other 19th-century romances.


Emma (1996)

Sanding down some of its source material’s sharper edges, Emma remains the epitome of the mid-’90s Miramax period piece; it’s a light, fluffy confection whose liveliness and good humor outweigh its lack of depth. Adapting Jane Austen’s revered novel, screenwriter-director Douglas McGrath takes a spirited approach to the 19th-century English tale of young Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow), who spends a year attempting to play matchmaker for a number of acquaintances, the most prominent being Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), a new friend just starting out in high society. Emma’s efforts to set up Harriet with local minister Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) help kick-start a roundelay of romantic pairings and partings, which eventually come to include Emma’s own relationships with both Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), the coveted son of her governesses’ new husband, and George Knightley (Jeremy Northam), her close family friend.

McGrath stages his story with little aesthetic flair, and from today’s perspective, his film’s production design proves far less convincing than that of Downton Abbey. Still, the director’s fondness for extended takes allows Austen’s memorable characters, and his cast’s uniformly compelling performances, to command center stage, and his script effectively channels the novel’s atmosphere of amorous anticipation, longing, and confusion. As Emma’s own desires become hopelessly tangled up in her friends’ affairs, Emma takes on a frothy energy. And at the film’s center, Paltrow radiates magnetic grace and charm as Austen’s most famous heroine, beaming and pouting and gliding around the English countryside with an effervescent enthusiasm. She captures the way in which love can enliven, inspire, and blind us—to the truth about ourselves, and others—in equal measure.

Availability: Emma is available on DVD and Blu-ray, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library. The film can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.