"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Monday, May 5, 2008

Masterpiece: Emma

"When pressed for a description" of a vexing acquaintance, says the title character of Jane Austen's "Emma," "I say she is `elegant.' "

How's that for spin? Shot in the glorious countryside around Dorset (which doubles for Austen's beloved Hampshire), this handsome, uneven film lacks the expansive romanticism of "Sense and Sensibility," and the directness and authenticity of "Persuasion" (the best of the Austen quartet).

What "Emma" does have going for it is a wonderful performance from Kate Beckinsale as the heroine. Now that her tutor, Miss Taylor has married, she has nothing to occupy her time except the care of her aged, ailing father, her errands on behalf of the poor and the exercise of her talents as an amateur matchmaker.

In the last area, this apprentice Cupid couldn't do worse if she shot with her eyes closed. Her first project is her rather bovine friend Harriet Smith, who has her heart set on a local farmer. Though the farmer is a decent man who has all but proposed, Emma has it in her head that Mr. Elton, the local vicar, is a far more suitable match.

Of course, what the resolute Emma fails to notice is that Mr. Elton couldn't care less for Miss Smith and instead has fallen madly in love with her. It's at about this moment -- as Emma recoils in horror from Mr. Elton's unwelcome professions of love -- that Beckinsale's performance begins to cook. She's glamorous, but at the same time goony and girlishly awkward, and she has great instincts for comedy. When she's funny -- as she is, for example, when she conspires subtly against Jane Fairfax, a pretty young rival for the affections of Frank Churchill -- it feels sharp and light on its feet. Suddenly I remember how merciless and cutting Austen's satire can be, even in 2008.

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