Gwyneth Paltrow works such magic in Emma that you can almost hear the click of a career locking into high gear. She was only 20 in 1993 when she stole Flesh and Bone from under Meg Ryan's cute nose. Paltrow played a decidedly uncute hustler who crashed wakes to steal rings off corpses. Bold start. Then she stalled in flops (Moonlight and Valentino, Jefferson in Paris, The Pallbearer) that required only a pretty face. Seven hit big, but her role as Brad Pitt's loyal and later decapitated wife was thankless. Offscreen, she lost her head to Pitt for real. The tabloids reduced her to being the less-famous half of a hot couple. It was only a matter of time till Paltrow brought those jerks down to size.
The time is now. Emma, another richly entertaining raid (following Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion) on the novels of the 180-years-dead Jane Austen, showcases Paltrow's talent, wit and daring. Apologies to Austen for putting it indelicately, but Emma, the daddy's girl whom Paltrow portrays, is a pain in the ass. She doesn't skimp on the spoiled, spiteful and self-deluded sides of Emma to win sympathy. Unafraid to play a narcissistic hard case in crinoline, Paltrow is radiant and riveting.
Credit first-time director Douglas McGrath, who adroitly adapted the 1816 Austen novel, for not sugarcoating the pill as the bossy Emma manipulates everyone in the small English village of Highbury. With a sweet smile, of course. Bitch.
McGrath's script is faithful: fierce when it needs to be and devilishly funny. The Texas-born humorist who wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen lacks the flair for composition that director Ang Lee bestowed on Sense and Sensibility. Lee made Austen's insulated English countryside a microcosm of the world beyond and a mirror for its follies. But McGrath is a word man with an astute ear for Austen. When Emma's wealthy, widowed father is offered a piece of rich cake at the wedding of Emma's governess (Greta Scacchi), the old hypochondriac cries out in horror: "Madam, you put us all in peril."
In fact, the peril comes from Emma's dangerous interference, which masquerades as friendship or charity. She decides her dim friend Harriet (Toni Collette of Muriel's Wedding) is too good for the farmer (Edward Woodall) who loves her and perfect for the vicar (Alan Cumming) who pines for Emma and earns a drop-dead look for saying so. Frank Churchill, played with high good humor by Ewan McGregor of Trainspotting, is another mismatch. Emma sees herself as beyond marriage and beyond criticism. Only her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley (a dashing Jeremy Northam), has the guts to sass her back. It takes Harriet setting her cap for Mr. K (above her station in Emma's view) to make Emma see that she loves him herself.
If the plot sounds familiar to those who are unversed in Austen, it's probably memories of Clueless, last summer's hit comedy in which Alicia Silverstone played a delicious 90210 version of Emma in Val-gal-speak ("As if"). While Paltrow's Emma shows off with an archer's bow or a well-placed barb, Silverstone's control freak preens through power shopping and wields a cellular phone to fire off a dis ("Did I miss something? Is big hair back?"). Silverstone delivered a delightful parody. Paltrow bravely plays it for real.
In a stinging scene at a picnic, Emma insults a well-meaning chatterbox, Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson in an award-caliber performance), who cares for her aged mother (Phyllida Law). Mr. Knightley rails at Emma for her cruelty, leaving her stunned and, for the first time, chastened. It should be noted that Thompson and Law are sister and mother, respectively, to Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her sly Sense and Sensibility screenplay.
And while we're talking bloodlines, Paltrow shows flashes of the power and grace of her mother, Blythe Danner, who curtailed a still-strong career to raise a family. I recall Danner's first screen lead, in 1974, as a Texas belle in Sidney Lumet's little-seen Lovin' Molly. The film spans 40 years and ends in a flashback to Molly in her youth, like Emma, before impulsive choices took their toll. The camera moves through trees to glimpse Molly sitting in a blue and white dress on the steps of a schoolhouse. She is waiting, smiling, for her life to begin. You watch Danner raptly, as if her face held the key to a great mystery. It's a gift only a true film actor has.
Paltrow has it, too. You watch Emma make the choices that will keep her in a small, indulged cocoon or help her forge an identity in a harsher world. It's Emma's conflicted character, made luminous by Paltrow, that intrigues audiences. The actress holds us in thrall by giving us an Emma we can love and scorn. Paltrow is hot stuff. So's the movie. It's a winner.