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Emma

Miramax/Magna . R4 . COLOR . 116 mins . G . PAL

  Feature
Contract

Ah, Jane Austen. The bane of the existence of many a high school student, the 19th-Century author is also the darling of many - especially Hollywood, where anything as Bloody British as this must be cultural - right, dahhling? For the uninitiated (and let’s face it - there are probably more people who’ve heard of Austen and her work than have actually read it), Jane Austen spent a great deal of time around two hundred years ago waxing lyrical on relationships, the courtship that leads to them and the manners that go in between it all; almost exclusively writing (seemingly without irony) about the middle and upper classes of the society in which she lived, Austen had an undeniable skill at ironic drama, and most probably an eagle-keen observant eye when it came to the manners and mores of the “society” of the time. But is it relevant now? That’s not a question that needs to be answered here, but suffice to say that if you live in Toorak or Double Bay you’re infinitely more likely to click with Austen’s characters than the rest of us.

The above is, of course, sacrilege to most English Literature teachers. It is, however, a good indication of just how interminably irrelevant Austen’s work can seem when it’s comically exaggerated for the cinema - as Emma is - to the point where it comes across like a sketch-show parody of Oscar Wilde. Every line is spoken with ludicrous dramatic pretension, almost as if the entire cast was running a Most Bloody Britishly Droll competition for the benefit of the cinematic audience. But it’s not their fault - there are, after all, fine actors involved with this undeniably fine production. It’s just that when pushed to the utter limit by near-theatrical acting, this dialogue sounds… well, it sounds twee, obnoxious and utterly irrelevant. Those of the “lower classes” (i.e. with, err, jobs) will probably find a hundred times the wit in Shakespeare’s comedies; however, Austen fans (and we know there are more than a few, some of whom we’ll undoubtedly be hearing from after this) will be all too aware that Emma, Austen’s follow-up to Pride And Prejudice and Mansfield Park, is one of her most popular works.

The plot? We could spend pages cataloguing it. The web of intrigue begins with young Emma Woodhouse, a well-to-do and rather attractive thing whose self-appointed role in life is as matchmaker to everyone else - that is, until she unintentionally falls for one of those she is attempting to matchmake. A simple story? Yes, it is. But damn it, this is about more than just a mere title character! Because here as well we have a ream of society-obsessed, utterly Bloody British well-to-do types that seem to do absolutely nothing but sit in their mansions and complain about each other, occasionally playing the grand piano that some mystery admirer sent them and discussing hats. It is, in fact, the sort of “society” that makes Melrose Place seem positively warm and loving by comparison.

Oh, but make no mistake - The Poor are included. As the Official Evil, no less. The Poor don’t do much except get sick (and have to suffer visits from the likes of Emma - “mustn’t grumble”, moans one Poor Old Woman, echoing the spirit that’s kept the 99% of England that isn’t rich alive to this day!), hang around looking dirty and menacing and, of course, attack the Nice People in the forest, because of course that’s what The Poor always do. Make no mistake, we’re not trying to be “politically correct” or any other such rubbish here. It’s just that this story, classic or not, is just plain silly.

However, Douglas McGrath’s 1996 movie of Emma (his debut feature as a director) does have a lot to recommend it for Austen disciples. For a start, the film looks utterly gorgeous, with stunning cinematography (by Ian Wilson, who also lensed The Crying Game), a magnificently romantic music score by Rachel Portman and a big-name cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow (admittedly charming - and with a completely believable English accent - as Emma), Alan Cumming, Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette, Great Scacchi, Polly Walker - and Ewan McGregor in a role where he gets to do the theatrical English accent (a la The Phantom Menace - and he does use the line “is your horse washing his feet, or are the darker forces at work here?” at one point) and also gets to… sing! Moulin Rouge his singing debut, they claim? Piffle to that (as Austen might have said) - he sings in this 1996 film for all to see (as well as in Velvet Goldmine, for that matter).

One does get the impression on occasion during Emma that screenwriter/director McGrath was actually making fun of the whole thing; however, it’s far more likely that it’s simply being done with a spirit of fun and lightheartedness, with a spot of (possibly ironic) irony. Either way, if you’re an Austen fan, you’ll love this version of Emma (it’s been filmed before and since, but this one’s got the production values to beat all comers). But other Austen offerings like the BBC’s lavish Pride And Prejudice have tackled the dubious tone of Austen’s work far better - here, escalated to near-comedy, it comes across more as annoying or pretentious than it does clever.

  Video
Contract

This Miramax-produced film was issued on DVD by Buena Vista in the US, and reports suggest that version was a 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Surround audio - hardly reference material, but better than what Australian licensees Becker (distributing via Magna Pacific) have been able to attain for region 4. Because this disc offers you a pan-and-scan transfer that is almost certainly the same one used for the VHS release of the film in Pal territories. Around the 6 minute mark you’ll notice Emma talking to a pair of legs on the left hand side of the screen; there used to be a character there, but whoever transferred this one didn’t want you to see them. Bits of actors are chopped off throughout, with the occasional electronic pan across the print to reformat a scene very obvious indeed. A slight squeeze also appears to have been applied to one shot at the 25 minute mark to fit the characters in the frame.

This is all a shame, as the telecine transfer itself is undeniably very good. A bit soft visually (though that suits the subject matter) it’s rich in shadow detail and vibrant in colour saturation; this is, we’d guess, the very same transfer used for the 16:9 version, later panned and scanned for full-frame video. The MPEG compression on the region 4 disc was done by DVD Technologies, and is quite remarkably good for a near-two-hour film on a single DVD layer. Only a couple of complex backgrounds show signs of causing problems; other than that the compression work is flawless. There is, though, a brief video interruption at the start of chapter 13, around the 57 minute mark of the film - it looks like a layer change point, but is probably just a change of video sources (we’re betting this disc was mastered from an analogue video source) done with a small editing error in mastering.

  Audio
Contract

Audio, in Dolby Surround (though not flagged as such on the disc itself) is reasonable but unremarkable, and there are some problems with the source track (which is obviously analogue - there are occasional analogue-style dropouts in the right channel and a good deal of hiss and compression throughout). The original dialogue track also has its own problems (probably a problem at the time of the original mix) including dropouts and a quiet “clunk” sound that gives away dialogue edit points on a regular basis. Rachel Portman’s score sounds nice enough, but this soundtrack overall has a distinct lack of the “sparkle” and clean top end we’re used to on DVD; in some places, it sounds almost muffled. Incidentally, all information we’ve been able to find suggests that the film was originally mixed in matrixed Dolby Surround only; as a largely dialogue-centred film that would not be at all surprising.

  Extras
Contract

The only extra present, aside from a music-backed main menu, some badly proof-read production notes poorly formatted in a huge font and a ridiculously convoluted cast-and-crew section, is a theatrical trailer. This is presented full-frame with very poor image quality - and with, amazingly, a left-right formatted soundtrack of the kind that’s usually provided to TV studios when they might need to add their own voice-over - in other words - music and effects in the left channel, voice-over in the right.

DVD Technologies also weigh in at the movie’s end with their own trailer, which is well worth a mention simply because it’s so bizarre. Using the 5.1 audio from Dolby’s own “city” trailer, it recreates the same 3D animation (at far lower quality) in a custom-built DVD Technologies way! It’s surprising that Dolby allowed this, though we must presume that they did.

  Overall  
Contract

Extremely well produced and likely to thrill die-hard Austen fans, Emma is a lavishly-filmed version of a well-known piece of classic literature, with a stellar cast and a lovely, Oscar-winning music score. Magna Pacific’s DVD is, while of decent enough quality to please those used to VHS, a disappointment given the wonderful visuals and audio on offer in this movie.


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      And I quote...
    "...a good indication of just how interminably irrelevant Austen’s work can seem when it’s comically exaggerated for the cinema - as Emma is - to the point where it comes across like a sketch-show parody of Oscar Wilde..."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-AV1020
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard RCA
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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