Emma (1996)

Genres - Romance, Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Comedy of Manners, Period Film  |   Run Time - 107 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom, United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Mike Cummings

British author Jane Austen's most engaging matchmaker, Emma Woodhouse, comes delightfully alive in this 1997 film set in the town of Highbury, England, in the early 1800s. Kate Beckinsale is absolutely superb as Emma, a snooty busybody who will invade any drawing room at any time to pair an eligible bachelor with a marriageable maiden. Infusing her role with impish charm, Beckinsale both captivates and exasperates Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley, an honest, level-headed gentleman who deeply loves her, but cannot say so. Because the film is faithful to the novel, the story abounds in dramatic irony. For example, while making her matches (usually bad ones), Emma fails to notice that Knightley loves her even as he fails to notice that she loves him. Meanwhile, hapless Harriet Smith (Samantha Smith), Emma's dimwitted protégée who has been rejected by the Rev. Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan), sets her cap for handsome Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard), even though he already has a wife, the beautiful Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams), whom he married in secret. The dialogue is scintillating, but sometimes cruel as upper-class snobs prey on their lower-class victims. At a hillside picnic catered by starched servants, even winsome Emma takes part in the sport, insulting a old Mrs. Bates (Prunella Scales), a spinster who lacks the cleverness to fight back. Emma's reprehensible behavior earns her a cutting reprimand from Knightley, and tears streak her face as she begins to come to grips with her prejudices. Strong is good as Knightley, seasoning his character with a gruff exterior that belies his inner goodness. As the plot boils and thickens, Knightley one day confronts Emma with an important announcement. Will he ask her for hand? Or will he say goodbye for the final time? The period apparel and music are marvelous, and the film well deserved the Emmy awards it received for art direction and costume design.