The American dream

It's official. Jane Austen can stand up to transatlantic travel. It's chiefly a matter of casting. By Adam Mars-Jones; EMMA Douglas McGrath (U)
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Long ago there was a lot of discussion of the "servant problem" - and what was meant was how terribly difficult it is, these days, to get satisfactory staff. Not like before the bally war. The new version of Emma, adapted for the screen and directed by Douglas McGrath, illustrates the servant problem in another sense: the embarrassing fact that people in the past, with whose assumptions and sentiments it would otherwise be a pleasure to identify, spoil things by having servants, not just someone to come in and do a little light dusting twice a week but virtually owned human beings. In Emma, the Bates household of mother and daughter is flat out described as poor, and it's true that Miss Bates must distribute the cake at tea herself, but she is not so far reduced that she has to open her own door to callers.

Our domestic television adaptations of classic books rather celebrates the presence of staff, treating them almost as additional pieces of desirable furniture. Servility acquires a patina in its historical period, and livery buttons gleam pleasingly in a gracious interior. It may be a mark of the Americanness of this Emma (its director started his professional life on the satirical show Saturday Night Live) that the servants are such a problem. He solves it for most of the film by showing as little of them as possible, perhaps a disembodied hand passing food to a guest, or a coachman's feet. The words "thank you Charles" or "good morning Peter" are spoken to fleeting phantoms. McGrath seems happiest, though, when he shows nothing of the servants at all, even though he leaves us to wonder who dusts the busts and winds the clocks.

At one point Emma and Mr Knightley have been jousting verbally and also practising their archery - with Emma's growing discomfiture illustrated rather too obviously by the increasing wildness of her shots. She says, "I see the tea is ready. Let's stop and have some!" And indeed a full table of food and hot drink has materialised on the lawn without visible human intervention, as if teleported to Mr Knightley's estate direct from Fortnum & Mason.

By the time of the climactic picnic, there are simply too many prosperous families converging on one spot for this convention to work, and the director allows us to see flunkies and footmen at last. But it's certainly a little discouraging that Douglas McGrath shrinks from a basic fact about the society Jane Austen describes. In general, his screenplay is better than his direction - but then we tout Austen's virtues while not trusting them to travel. The anticipatory attitude in Britain to this Emma has been along the lines of Jane Austen is so gloriously universal how could an American possibly understand her? In fact, as the current boom in adaptations is showing, her work is robust for all its fineness.

McGrath hasn't cast a British actress in the lead, but he has cast Gwyneth Paltrow, a talented performer with an elegant neck, and nothing more was required of him. Only with the word "thought" - she says "thot" - does her accent waiver, so that she seems for a moment to have been modelling herself on Connie Booth in Fawlty Towers. Jeremy Northam's Mr Knightley is an accomplished study in tender exasperation.

Toni Collette is such successful casting as Harriet Smith that all McGrath needs to do is point the camera at her. As viewers of Muriel's Wedding will remember, she emits a luminous panic, terrified that she's going to do the wrong thing but having no idea what the right thing is. In a sense McGrath wastes her by adding an element of physical comedy. When Emma is trying to cry up Harriet's virtues to catch the interest of Mr Elton (Alan Cumming) the director inserts shots of how she really behaved when the two women were doing the charitable rounds - Harriet stumbling, or plucking at a cabbage leaf as if it were a horrid green insect landed on her shawl. Collette is perfectly graceful in her movements, but communicates a fear of clumsiness without the director's cruder interventions. Her every step is shadowed by the galumph she dreads.

More experienced directors than Douglas McGrath have concluded that casting is nine parts of the job. As Mrs Elton, Juliet Stevenson takes a long overdue holiday from noble sensitive roles. Nothing in Ewan McGregor's past life on screen (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) would suggest his suitability for playing Frank Churchill, but the discrepancy of his acting style pays a dividend. It becomes part of the character's dangerous charm that he enters a conspiracy with the person he's talking to, as if they alone know what is real and what is not. In a genteel stratum, this raffish energy, this irony and dryness could do a lot of damage.

If only McGrath had been able to find a role for the camera! It swoops from time to time to emphasise a point that has been clearly made. It offers silly compositions - two women's heads, for instance, posed to fit under the hats hanging in a shop window. It strives to link scenes that flow in any case - moving up into the trees, dissolving, and then showing the artificial nature of Harvest Festival in the church. Sometimes the editing strings scenes together, cutting from a rehearsed speech or anticipated event, say, to the occasion of its actual delivery or occurrence. These bits of slick joining up only betray the misplaced fear that the story isn't moving along as modern taste demands. Meanwhile we see high summer and then authentic snowbound winter with hardly a frame devoted to intermediate states, as if the past contained only the quintessence of the seasons.

The director betrays his nervousness most of all with the grotesque over- use of Rachel Portman's music. The soundtrack never trusts us to deduce the mood of a scene without nudging our ears, and giving us plentiful hints. The supreme moment in this Emma is Miss Bates being snubbed by Emma at the picnic - partly because Sophie Thompson knows exactly what she is doing, but also because it happens for once without musical interpretation. It's almost worth being snubbed if it allows you to hear yourself think.

n 'Emma' is on general release from tomorrow