A star is born as America finds its Emma

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The Independent Culture
Jane Austen fever is once again sweeping America. A new film of Emma, which opens in Britain next month, has thrilled Americans from the President downwards. It follows the Oscar triumph of Sense and Sensibility and the critically acclaimed BBC export of Pride And Prejudice.

But the success of Emma is the biggest surprise. There was some consternation in Britain, not only among Jane-ites, when the American producers Miramax cast the 23-year-old Hollywood starlet Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role.

Best known over here for being the girlfriend of the actor Brad Pitt and appearing opposite him in the thriller, Seven, the American, untested in classical roles, seemed an odd choice to play Austen's matchmaker.

However, Paltrow, has prov-ed a triumph in the role, with an understated and whimsical performance which has had audiences in Los Angeles and New York cheering. Last weekend it took $2.5m and its takings per screen are bigger than those for the blockbuster, Independence Day. British distributors expect the film to be one of the biggest hits of the autumn.

Time magazine said with this performance, "Gwyneth Paltrow emerges as the most elegant actress of her generation". She is joined by a largely British cast, with Jeremy Northam as her mentor, Mr Knightley, and supporting performances from Alan Cumming, Juliet Stevenson, Greta Scacchi, Polly Walker, Ewan McGregor, and show-stealing performances from real-life daughter and mother, Sophie Thompson and Phyllida Law, as the garrulous Miss Bates and her mother.

Miss Thompson as Miss Bates, "a great talker on little matters" as Austen describes the character, has the most poign-ant moment of the film as the anguish and pain on her face are palpable when Emma insults her at the picnic. The film is adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath, an American who co-wrote Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen.

After the rave review in the American press, President Clinton requested a private screening at the White House where he sat next to Paltrow. He told McGrath afterwards that he was a Jane Austen fan. McGrath said: "One of his many feelings of affection for England is that he proposed to Hillary for the first time in the Lake District. She finally succumbed back in romantic Arkansas."

McGrath added that President Clinton asked Paltrow how she had perfected her English accent, telling her that while studying at Oxford "he would go to tea parties just to listen to the musical way the women spoke, and the film brought that back".

Paltrow, the daughter of the actress Blythe Danner and the television producer Bruce Paltrow, is described by McGrath as "the next Meryl Streep. Men adore and women love her but don't envy her. She has a beauty you don't feel threatened by".

She now looks set to corner the market, at least temporarily, in British classic heroines. She is currently filming the role of Estella in a remake of Great Expectations.

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