Jane Austen for beginners

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THE PEDIGREE of Douglas McGrath, who has both scripted and directed Emma (U), is enough to give the wilts and the vapours to Austen hard-liners of every stripe, from the militant tendency who still refer to our author as "Dear Jane" or "Miss Austen" to the Professor Zapps who see her texts through the cracked looking glass of Lacan or whoever. McGrath is a graduate of the Saturday Night Live school of indelicate humour, and a sometime collaborator with Woody Allen: grim precedents for those who prefer their Austen untainted by jokes about flatulence or the daunting cost of psychoanalysis.

Those fears are misplaced. For all its less than perfectly tactful gestures, McGrath's Emma is brisk and good-natured and, on the whole, adequately charming, so it would be mannerless to draw too much attention to its many infidelities of tone. As with some other adaptations - Roger Michell's brilliantly unbeglamoured Persuasion is the shining exception - the direction in which this piece of Austeniana tends to err isn't towards the coarse but the cute: the loonier fringes of the Dear Jane mob may enjoy it precisely because of its chocolate-boxy touches (Emma and Harriet playing with puppies ... ). As ever, the degree of enjoyment one can take in the production will be greater the less one is in thrall to knowledge and privately treasured fantasies of the original.

The best news is that it is quite funny, and has been cast with invention. Juliet Stevenson is deliciously ghastly as that preening trout Mrs Elton, and fully justifies McGrath's decision to break the un-stagey convention he's established by letting her deliver her scathing final judgement directly to camera. She's well matched by Alan Cumming as a twittering but not unduly silly Mr Elton - albeit one whose amorous intentions towards Miss Woodhouse are all too thumpingly plain from the outset. The boldest stroke pays most dividends: Toni Collette, the strapping Australian star of Muriel's Wedding, would surely have been relegated to a distant appendix of most casting directors' lists for the role of Harriet Smith, but, fidelity be hanged, she's one of the most solid pleasures the film offers - an irresistibly undaunted compound of shy erotic ambition and yearning to please her hopelessly unperceptive tutor in love.

And so to Emma herself. John Henry Newman once wrote of the character, "I feel kind to her whenever I think of her," and Gwyneth Paltrow is lucky enough to have the gift of inspiring a similar kindness, partly because she doesn't seem smug about her beauty (it's a very complicated beauty: smitten viewers sometimes rhapsodise about her swan-like neck but there are times in Emma when, turning her head aside and frowning - a trick used just a shade too frequently - she resembles an unusually attractive duck), partly because there's no note of condescension (in our pejorative sense, not Austen's) to the part. And her English accent, bar the occasional nasality, is about the most flawless heard on screen since the boys in Spinal Tap.

A triumph then? Not exactly. Clueless, which took the ultimate liberty of transferring Emma and company through time and space to a 90210 zip code, was funnier and more thought-tickling, and McGrath's film isn't going to do a lot for readers who treat Jane Austen as something stronger than the literary equivalent of a nice cup of cocoa. Individual awkward notes (Mr Knightley, played by Jeremy Northam, looks too young and should not twinkle; would Emma really have addressed her journal as "Dear Diary", or wondered, "Is it possible Mr Elton met her while doing charity work in a mental infirmary?"?) matter less than the film's failure to convey more than the faintest hint that the novel is a greater, stranger affair than just an idyll and a romantic farce, steadily though it embraces both these genres. Not that it matters: Austen's prose is strong enough to withstand a neutron bomb, let alone a few well-intentioned solecisms.

For a legal thriller which harps on about every citizen's right to a fair trial, A Time to Kill (15), adapted from yet another book by Miss Austen's keenest Hollywood rival, John Grisham, and directed by Joel Schumacher, is really much too eager to incriminate or exonerate its characters first and ask questions later. Diligently as it tries to pass itself off as a disquieting drama of principles, the stinky old bones of melodrama keep poking up through its contemporary surface. Just about every character is some kind of stock figure, every situation a contrivance, and the distress stays warm and cosy at heart. If you don't much care for the kind of pinko court-room movie which maintains that we are all guilty, relax: this one proves that we were framed.

In the opening sequence, two scuzzy, beer-swilling rednecks - what would Dear Jane have thought? - drive their pick-up through a poor rural district, taunting and menacing its black residents before indulging in a spot of multiple rape and attempted murder on a little girl. Very nasty; and it would have been every bit as nasty if Schumacher hadn't filmed the township as an oasis of dappled sunlight and honestly worn dungarees that wouldn't have looked out of place in Song of the South. Later the film is going to vent some scorching words on race, most of them spoken with thrillingly dour vehemence in a jail cell by Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L Jackson), the little girl's father, who guns down the cracker rapists and thus faces the death penalty. He's plainly no Uncle Tom, but you're still left with the strong subliminal impression that his neighbour might be Uncle Remus.

Benign racism isn't the deepest of the ideological muddles the film flounders around in. The yarn is pretty straightforward: Jake Brigance, a decent, ambitious, homeloving, handsome, humorous, sexy, brave, sporty and dog-owning Southern lawyer (Matthew McConaughey plays him, and bears the burden of all those adjectives with commendable ease), is such a thoroughly fine fellow that he takes on Hailey's case, and stays with it despite all the pressures that mount up: he's broke, the newly reformed KKK bombs and burns his house, his wife leaves and a pushy law student with fancy Yankee ideas (Sandra Bullock, not on screen as much as the posters suggest) keeps offering her help as well as a little extra-legal homework. The film isn't nearly so interested in Hailey's fate as in Brigance's soul: he's a white saint who has to pass through temptations.

Against the odds, and thanks (again) to some terrific casting choices, the result is sufficiently entertaining to keep drawing your eye away from the otherwise unmissable fact that while A Time to Kill appears to bristle with liberal scruples, it's endorsing vigilante justice as heartily as any overtly reactionary movie - say, An Eye for an Eye (by chance, Kiefer Sutherland plays a violent low-life in both films). But what luscious cameos: Kevin Spacey as a swinish prosecutor! Brenda Fricker as a straitlaced but plucky old gal! Patrick McGoohan, plus Dixie accent, as a hanging judge! Donald Sutherland as an alcoholic legal genius in a paisley dressing gown!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who marries one of the most ethereally beautiful women in the world and then loses her has every right to go bonkers. Think casually back on Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris (15), should you be in the admittedly eccentric habit of thinking back on such things, and you will probably recall it as the most movie- crazed of that movie-crazed young man's work: it's the straightforward one, shot in Technicolor and scope, about the writer (Michel Piccoli), who's hired by an American producer (Jack Palance) to work on a version of the Odyssey that's being directed by Fritz Lang, who plays himself, very engagingly.

What strange tricks memory plays. Watch it again now and you realise that the film-making sequences in Cinecitta and Capri which begin and end the film are just the film's bread and butter: the real meat comes in those terrible, pathetic long scenes between Piccoli and his young wife (Brigitte Bardot), who has suddenly fallen out of love with him and into contempt for him. They throb with such anguish and self-pity that it feels almost indecent to watch them, and however closely they may adhere to the source material, Alberto Moravia's novel, they reek of autobiography: for Piccoli and BB, read Godard and his wife Anna Karina. The despair of some of Godard's later work now seems more whipped up and rhetorical than it did at the time, but this is the real thing, and one of cinema's most harrowing portraits of what can happen after a Jane Austen ending.

Mario Martone's L'Amore Molesto (15) is set in Naples, flashes between time past (bleached- out tones) and time present (vivid red dresses), concerns a woman's quest for a dark secret in her mother's life and strikes at least one viewer as immoderately uninteresting.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 13.

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