Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), we reach double digits with #10 and a charming Jane Austen adaptation…
Directed by: Douglas McGrath
Young matchmaker Emma Woodhouse finds her efforts to ensure romantic happiness in others thwarted by their inability to fall in love according to her convenience, and by the growing affections within her own heart.
Emma Woodhouse is a mannered and ostensibly kind young woman in 19th century England, but has the flaw of trying to arrange the lives of people around her and growing frustrated when they do not comply. She’s also had to deal with unexpected reactions toward her herself, including both unwanted romantic attentions and apparent jealousy. This all leads to a moment where Emma and her friends go on a picnic, only for the conversation to turn to a point where she is directly snubbed by the unpleasant Mr. & Mrs. Elton, who have their own reasons for holding a grudge against the socialite.
Emma’s frustration turns into a comment which is meant to be a teasing jibe at her poor but talkative neightbor Miss Bates. The slur is intended to be veiled, but Miss Bates’ reaction makes it clear that she understands exactly what is being said, and the woman retreats into self-effacing expressions of regret. The kind and respectful Mr. Knightly comes to her rescue by asking Miss Bates to accompany him on a walk; but later Knightly confronts Emma and gives her a sharp rebuke. Emma is chagrined and attempts to pass the incident off as nothing, and even to justify it, but Knightly won’t have it. “If she were prosperous, or a woman equal to you in situations I would not quarrel with you about any liberties in manner. But she is poor! Even more so than when she was born! And should she live to be an old lady she would sink further still! Her situation being in every way below you should secure your compassion! Badly done, Emma. Badly done.”
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Emma and sells the woman’s strengths and flaws admirably. But in this sequence it is the twin performances by Jeremy Northam as Knightly and Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates that really hit the point home. Miss Bates’ embarrassment and hurt, all buried under a healthy does of English manners, is painful to watch because it feels so real. And Northam’s ability to communicate Knightly’s shock at his friend’s insensitivity brings the whole point home to us very clearly, even as Emma herself finally gets the message about the kind of person she is becoming.
You can watch the whole sequence here:
Emma begins to change, making efforts to not only patch things up with Miss Bates but also to become more honest with herself. This all sets up her final realization, that she is herself actually in love with Mr. Knightly. This being a Jane Austen romantic comedy, we know how that’s going to work out, but touches like this scene help to make it all believable. We can clearly see that this man, who is willing to be honest with her and call her out when she hurts someone else, is more than worthy of her attention.