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Northam on Emma

I think the path to particular authors is well-trodden. I think Jane Austen writes romantic novels. Emma is a character who is kind of fantasizing about ideals with all these relationships. That ideal, though it's kind of rosy and romantic, also embraces people's failings as human beings. You can't really say anything about any of the characters in Emma without putting an edge in somewhere. 

I would say that Miss Bates, probably, is the only one who escapes, but she talks too much. Everyone's got something that's not quite right. That appeals to our quite hard-bitten natures at the same time. I think we want romance and we want escape to a certain extent. I think that is why we like films that are set in the past in some way. We feel comfortable about that. Something that happens, to some extent, in an age of innocence, before the fall, like some paradise compared to now. And yet, our modern sensibilities also demand us to be slightly selective, and I think her [Austen's] sense of humor is quite cynical at times. It adds a certain sharpness to the apparent sweetness of the story. It's got a certain Shakespearean roundness to it. 

Like in many of Shakespeare's comedies, there's a slightly uneasy ending: So there is at the end of a lot of Austen novels. 

I think some scripts are better than others. The films' intentions are different. A Hollywood thriller like The Net has a different set of prerequisites than does a film like Emma. Emma was made because the director loved the book, and Miramax backed him. No doubt because they fancied that Jane Austen was popular at the time. The Net is more obviously trying to please an audience with a contemporary subject and a big, rising star like Sandra Bullock who is very watchable and extremely popular. It's a series of well-worked formulas, in many ways. People enjoy the reworking of a well-told story. 

(Why were you drawn to the character of Knightley?)

 I read the script and was initially in for another role in the movie, and I thought I had to go and persuade the director that I should be considered for Knightley. The appeal is because he is a warm, but complicated person, and his affection changes. He's got an interesting journey to go on, which is that he starts as almost a brother, almost an uncle figure because he's sixteen years senior to Emma. So he watched her grow from an infant to adolescence to this beautiful young woman.

 And his affection changes from a protective affection to real passion, which is adult, and it's sexual. I think sex suddenly appears in his life and it's a bit of a shock. I think if any of us put ourselves in that situation we'd see that it's quite an amazing journey to go on. It's kind of scary and brave to acknowledge that in one's self. Some of the scenes are beautifully written and expressed. I am an admirer of good dialogue. I like talking movies. I'm not afraid to use dialogue. I suppose it's partly my theater background. I have always thought of theater as a sort of aural medium, and I don't see why the movies can't do that as well. 

(How do you think Gwyneth Paltrow did [at her accent-, and how well do you think an American Emma will be received in England?)

There have been some fine examples, many of which escape my immediate recall, but there have been some awful ones, too. There have also been some awful attempts at American accents in England. I think she does an amazing job. Absolutely amazing. I never once heard a false note. It's not only about getting the vowel sounds right, or the tune in the voice. I mean it's hard enough for an English actor to speak Austen because the sentences are very convoluted. They're full of a rhetoric which we no longer use. If you break up sentences too much and over-explain them to an audience, then the audience won't get it. She had that absolutely innately, and kind of bubbled away with extreme confidence. 

I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised--if they can see past it. I think people might well go to a viewing of Emma with a certain amount of preconceptions. But I think they can bury it. If people had known, they might have had that preconception more about Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Sensibility emanated from Columbia in L.A., and it had a Taiwanese director. Emma has a dry, subtle humor. A British humor. 

Emma is very funny at some points, but the humor will likely be missed by an audience that thinks Jim Carrey is what humor is about. There's a humor in Austen's writing which is an undercut with a well-placed word. I just read the book again for an audio cassette in England and it was hard work, but it was incredible to see her humor. It's a humor based on irony, and it is largely deflating. I know some British people look at the whole of America and think that they do not understand irony. 

I was a bit vexed when I first went to California because people would look at me with an entirely straight face and flatly say, "You are so funny." And I'd look at them and think, "Are you being sarcastic?" In England, if you would go, "You are hilarious," it would be a prelude to a fight. It would be funny at the same time. But then you realize, after a while, that it's just words instead of compliments. They're kind of going, "We think you're trying to be funny. You might not be succeeding, but we have to say..." 

It's said with a certain fear in their eyes that they're not sure whether they got the joke. So how will Emma play to Americans? You know, it's hard. It's like asking if Emma is an American or British film. The money came from America. The leading star came from America. The director/writer came from America. It's a British film. It's a British film in sensibility. Absolutely. I think that's right. But that doesn't mean that there aren't other, certainly healthy influences in it. It's not the book. It is a film version, and it is Doug McGrath's version, faithful though it is, of the original. It isn't afraid of saying, "Right, there's dialogue, and there's lots of it, and you're going to have to listen, and enjoy, in the sort of sensual way, the act of listening."

I can't say I'm an avid reader of Austen's work, but I can say I'm a fan of Emma -- although I didn't fare well with it in school, as a 14-year-old boy. In fact, I loathed it with a vengeance. I think I entirely missed its sense of humor, which became quite clear when I read it last year and found myself chortling away as I read it. I hadn't realized how bitchy and acid [Austen] is. I hope we've reflected that in some way in the movie because it's a difficult authorial voice to replace, so much a part of the framework of the book. 

I hope people can see past the Austen bit. I think our look and tone is very different from Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. On one hand it's very handy that people go, "Oh, good, another Jane Austen novel," but on the other they go, "Oh, crap, there's another one." But they're different books, they're going to be different films. I don't think for a minute Douglas McGrath thought, "Oh, let's do a Jane Austen film, it'll be good in the box office." I think he wanted to do Emma because he loved the book. 

{It was} very daunting to work with the woman dating Brad Pitt. Enough to make you want to wear a paper bag over your head and start taking anti-aging vitamins. Or just become entirely reclusive and make sure you have reasonably smelling breath or something. I did meet Brad, and very personable he seemed, too. They're a very lovely couple...a very beautiful, young, beautiful couple. And they're very happy. And I hate them both! No, but Paltrow was perfectly nice to work with, very fun. She's got a sort of New Yorky, very urban sense of humor, which always goes well with, first of all, 18th-century bonnets and hairdos. And then you throw in a cellular phone and put us in the middle of a field in damp Dorset. It's quite funny, really. "What the hell!" she would say, or "Ewwwww. What is that? How do you spell that?"