Jeremy Northam Champions Jane Austen in "Emma" (1996)

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Jeremy Northam Champions Jane Austen in "Emma" (1996)

Post  DebraRatt on Wed May 16, 2012 12:50 am

Jeremy Northam Champions Jane Austen in "Emma"
Written by: Frank Magiera
Sunday Telegram
28 July 1996

Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy summer movies about slam-bang action heroes, incredibly stupid slackers and invading space aliens, Jane Austen raises her luscious, literate head - yet again.

This time, it's "Emma. " No, not Emma Thompson, the Oscar-winning adaptor and star of Austen's last hit, "Sense and Sensibility. " Rather it is Emma Woodhouse, the pretty, clever and somewhat smug heroine of the Jane Austen novel first published in 1816.

"Emma" is the latest Austen tome to make it to the big screen.

Actually this is the second film version to appear in as many years, if you count "Clueless," which was a very loose but still recognizable adaptation of "Emma. "

This version, which opens locally Aug. 9, is immensely more faithful to the original setting and tenor of Austen's story about a young woman living with her wealthy, widowed father in the small town of Highbury. Emma's fascination is less with her own romantic interests than with those of her friends and neighbors. She insists on being the matchmaker for people she deems incapable of managing such affairs on their own. Her efforts are blundering and the results are often devastating.


"Emma" promises finally to make a legitimate star out of Gwyneth Paltrow, heretofore known primarily as Blythe Danner's daughter and Brad Pitt's girlfriend. She played opposite Pitt in the serial killer thriller "Seven" and had supporting roles in "Jefferson in Paris," "Moonlight and Valentino," "Malice" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. "

Playing opposite Paltrow is British actor Jeremy Northam, playing Mr. Knightley, Emma's prosperous family friend, whose romantic interest in her goes unacknowledged until the film's climax.

Northam spent most of his career in the British stage and television. His introduction to American audiences came opposite Sandra Bullock in "The Net. " He also played a decadent sailor who temporarily distracts Emma Thompson from her interest in Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey in the film biography "Carrington. "

"One of the amazing things about "Emma' is that it tells 10 people's stories," said Northam, who visited Boston recently to promote the movie. "The basis of the stories seems to be so much about doing the right thing and behaving in the right way and that creates tensions between characters and that gives rise to all sorts of delightful interplay. "

Required Reading

Northam is not at all surprised that American audiences have lately developed a fascination for the talky, personal intrigues of Jane Austen, who has always been popular in England. Not only are her novels still required reading for British schoolchildren but she also topped the UK's best seller list last year, on the strength of a six-part television version of "Pride and Prejudice. "

To contrast this commitment to real literature on the part of British audiences with the more market-oriented interests perceived in Americans, Northam repeats a joke about an American investor in the series, who is stunned to learn that Austen has long since died.

"You mean she's not available for book signings? " he asks.

Northam said he read "Emma" for the first time two decades ago, when he was 14.

"It meant absolutely nothing to me," he said. "It's one of those books I've started and restarted and could never finish. It was more or less the same thing with "Pride and Prejudice,' when I was at school. " Northam said Austen's subtle sense of humor might not be easily discernible by youngsters. And the tension she creates by presenting contradictions in 19th century moral codes has a curious resonance for 20th century audiences.

No Rules

"Partly because there are no rules to the way we behave now," he said. "Generally we don't conform to any particular moral beliefs or mode of behavior that are common to every person. Austen's work has within it an innate sense at times of foreboding, propriety and decorum, but not in a prissy way.

"One of the nice things about the film is that you feel that it's hearty. You feel these are people who are active, even though we have to take a lot for granted in Jane Austen. When she says the weather was good enough to take exercise, they go for walks and ride horses, so sometimes people can appear a little anemic and a bit dandyish because of the culture. But it's actually an active world where people did much more than we do now. "

Northam said he honestly believes that "Emma" captures the charm and comic spirit of Austen's novel, which, he admits, does not always happen, no matter how sumptuous a period film might look.

"It's always a problem when you try to please everybody with a version of a novel," he said. "Some people will just take agin' it on the basis that it is not the book and it is therefore, somehow, doing the book a disservice. I think these days, given that people read less, anything that might encourage people to go and look at these books and develop a taste, even if it may not be my own, for reading, that's great. "

For Northam, lush, elaborately costumed, movies heavy on dialogue and relationships and short on action, didn't start just with Merchant-Ivory films such as "Room With a View. " He said British television has always featured multi-part dramatizations of classic novels.

"I grew up with them," he said. " "Emma' has been done. "Sense and Sensibility' has been done. "Pride and Prejudice' has been done 14 times, along with virtually any of the major novels. What's new is that it's found an audience in the cinema. "

Northam said the popularity of adapting Jane Austen novels probably has run its course, primarily because most of the novels have already been done. The only two left, "Mansfield Park " and "Northanger Abbey," he said are probably impossible to translate into screenplays.

"People will just latch on to something else," he said. "A few years ago it was Edith Wharton and E. M. Forster. Dostoevski is the new one. "

Northam was born in Cambridge, England, where his father was on the university faculty. When he was 10, his family moved to Bristol. At the University of London he took a degree in English literature and "studiously avoided the study of Jane Austen. " He began acting in college and decided to go to drama school in Bristol.

Olivier Award

In 1990 Northam won the coveted Olivier Award, the English equivalent of the Tony, as most promising newcomer. Unlike many British stage actors, he moved into film with eagerness and enthusiasm.

"I like to work," he said. "On the other hand, I never expected to work in film before a couple of years ago. I thought it was probably just something that had passed me by. So this is all a bonus. But I was very busy for nine years on stage and TV. "

When he talks about his television work, Northam feels compelled to explain that television in England is much different from television in the United States.

"People always assume that TV is a studio-bound medium. " he said. "It's not in the UK. I did three-part series of single films for television that were filmed on location. So it was a good training for screen acting because these things were shot like movies. " Northam said his breakthrough came after he completed a not-yet-released film in Canada in 1994.

"I went to Los Angeles, having wrapped that, and got "The Net' within four days of being there. So I suppose it was that and the small part in "Carrington. ' So people had something to refer to.

"That's the thing. People have to have something to cross-reference in their minds. People look at you and go, oh, why the hell should I want to meet you? And then they go, oh because he was in this, or I saw him in that. "

Since he began making films two years ago, Northam hasn't worked in the theater. "I seem to be in a slightly different world now, where people seem to be interested in meeting me for other film work. How long it will last I don't know. "

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