Austen Revival May Be Passing, But Video Collection Is Splendid
For slightly more than a year, Jane Austen enticed us away from our usual big-screen fare of car crashes, semi-automatic gunfire and sex-studded foreplay.
With the release of Douglas McGrath’s “Emma” on video this week (see capsule review below), Austen’s revival has run its course. Let’s take a moment now and mourn its passing.
But wait! This is yet another reason to thank the forces behind Hale-Bopp for inventing VCRs. For somewhere out there, the entire Austen-inspired collection is waiting for a review. Let’s run it down.
“Clueless” (Spokane theatrical release: July 21, 1995): Technically speaking, this Amy Heckerling movie is not Austen at all. But even its modern Valley Girl setting can’t disguise the fact that Heckerling, who wrote and directed, based her plot on Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma.” Alicia Silverstone is perfect as the Jeep-driving young fashion plate whose matchmaking instincts get her in one fix after another. Rated PG-13 ***
“Persuasion” (Nov. 17, 1995): A luminous-if-subdued adaptation of Austen’s 1817 novel of the same title (which was published posthumously), this Roger Michell film may be the most stately of the modern versions of Austen’s work. Concerning love gone awry, it centers on a young woman’s unfortunate decision to follow the advice of others rather than the dictates of her own heart. It is slow-paced study of people who specialize in miscommunication, but it is admirably crafted and superbly acted. Rated PG ***-1/2
“Pride and Prejudice” (Jan. 14-16, 1996, U.S., 6 hours): This six-hour A&E; cable network miniseries wasn’t the first attempt to put Austen’s 1813 novel on the big screen. The 1940 version, which ran an economical 1:58, starred such Hollywood legends as Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier and won an Oscar for art direction (black and white). The interesting thing about the television version is how fully it pulls you into the story, how thoroughly it engages you and how successfully it manages to illuminate Austen’s outrage over the sexist notions of the era without losing one bit of her good-humored sense of storytelling. Not rated ***-1/2
“Sense and Sensibility” (Jan. 19, 1996): This is perhaps the best known of the lot, having won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for screenwriter/actress Emma Thompson. But, too, it is the most spirited of the more traditional adaptations (little about “Clueless” is traditional). Director Ang Lee, well versed in the exercise of creating films about relationships, transferred his filmmaking sense to early 19th-century England and - what else? - captured the sensibility as well as anyone could. Rated PG ****
“Emma” (Aug. 16, 1996): See below.
Jane Austen purists complain that first-time writer-director Douglas McGrath (the Oscar-nominated co-screenwriter of Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway”) has missed the English novelist’s meaning. And a case can be argued that McGrath doesn’t make full use of the English countryside, the estate settings or even period costuming. And then there is the apparent miscasting of “Muriel’s Wedding” star Toni Collette … Yet, despite all this, McGrath’s “Emma” is the kind of film that some moviegoers are bound to love. And that is largely due to the performance of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose maturity at age 23 is astonishing. As Emma Woodhouse, Paltrow is a luminous presence - intent on being the perfect matchmaker but failing miserably and unable even to see where her own heart lies (even as we can from nearly the first frame). Paltrow is ably backed by co-stars Jeremy Northam, Juliet Stevenson, Greta Scacchi, Ewan McGregor (from “Trainspotting”) and Sophie Thompson (Emma’s sister). The result is a movie that, even if you can find fault, can be enjoyed on its merits. Rated PG
The rest of this week’s notable releases:
Ghost and the Darkness
When an engineer is sent to Africa to help build a trans-continental railway, he faces a formidable task: Not only are the various gangs of workers hard to work with, but all panic when a pair of killer lions begin to pick them off one by one. The engineer (Val Kilmer) then hires a professional hunter (Michael Douglas), but the two of them are pushed to the limits of their abilities - and beyond - to resolve the situation. Aside from the fact that both lead actors tend to lose their respective accents - Irish for Kilmer, American Southern for Douglas - the film has other problems, too. Many scenes are telegraphed, and the overall mood of spookiness just isn’t spooky enough. Rated R
This John Hughes-produced remake of Disney’s magical 1961 full-length cartoon, which involves the kidnapping of dalmatian puppies, is a good argument for leaving well enough alone. In updating the animated film (the male human protagonist is now a video-game designer instead of a songwriter), writer-producer Hughes has director Stephen Herek resorting to “Home Alone”-type sequences that are more mean-spirited than funny (unless, of course, you think electrocuting someone’s groin or throwing them in pig slop is funny). The dogs are cute, and Glenn Close is engaging as the arch-villainess Cruella de Vil. But Hughes-Herek might have made a better film - OK, so call me a mad optimist - had they done the “Babe” thing and allowed the animals to speak for themselves. Of course, then there might not have been time for all that Hughes-inspired slapstick. Rated G
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