Film review: Emma (1996) and Emma (1996)

Posted February 12, 2017 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 7 Comments

Screenshot (249) Two films based on the same book, released in the same year, both feature length not serials (albeit one a theatre movie, one made for TV) – what were they thinking? And yet – both are beautifully done, with great scripts, great actors in every role, great settings and attention to detail, to the point that it’s very, very hard to say one is better than the other. I watched them back to back and enjoyed both equally.

The movie version stars Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role and Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley, while the made for TV version stars Kate Beckinsale as Emma and Mark Strong as Mr Knightley. There really isn’t much to choose between either of the ladies, although perhaps my personal preference would fall for Beckinsale, but only because I’ve always pictured Emma as dark haired, and the very blonde Paltrow jars ever so slightly. Of the men, again, personal preference would be for Jeremy Northam, but they were both admirably suited to the role.

Of the lesser characters, both Miss Bates and Harriets were perfect, and the Eltons in both films were excellent, too. Of the two Frank Churchills, I liked the Beckinsale version better, but only because the Paltrow version had dreadful hair (I know, how shallow of me!). As for the Jane Fairfax’s, if you stood them both in front of me, I’m not sure I could tell one from the other. The only character where I had a strong (and reasoned) preference was Mr Woodhouse – I thought the Beckinsale incarnation of Bernard Hepton encapsulated his old-woman fussing perfectly, while the Paltrow version seemed too vigorous, somehow.

Screenshot (250)Some random thoughts. For the final coming together between Emma and Mr Knightley, I thought the Paltrow version captured the emotion better. The Beckinsale version, on the other hand, caught beautifully the dreadful situation of Jane Fairfax and her fragile emotional state. The Beckinsale film stayed truer to the book with regard to the Eltons – their smug, self-satisfied snobbery, very pleased with themselves, and perfectly suited. The Paltrow version of Mrs Elton was very entertaining, in constantly talking over her husband so that he can barely get a word in, but it leaves him looking rather as if he may regret his marriage, a step away from the book. But I did like her talking to camera during the wedding scene. The Beckinsale film ended with the massive harvest festival dance, clearly designed to bring all the bridal couples together at once, even farmer Robert Martin. I didn’t think it was entirely successful, but it wasn’t a problem.

In many ways, Emma is perhaps the best of Jane Austen’s works. I love it, because all the heroine’s troubles arise from her own personality. If she had not meddled in Harriet’s affairs, if she had been kinder to poor Miss Bates, if she had taken Jane Fairfax under her wing as she should, then everybody’s lives would have been smoother. Of course, then there would have been a lot less story to enjoy!

But one aspect of the book unsettles me rather, and that is Mr Knightley’s age, or perhaps I should say, not so much his age as the fact that he has known Emma since she was born. In fact, he was practically an adult already, and there’s something icky about a man who watches a girl grow up and then falls in love with her. Large age differences were very common in those days, not even worthy of comment (it was disparity of wealth/rank that got people agitated) and in a small, confined society, such things must have happened a great deal, but even so, I found it a little unsettling.

Overall, I can recommend both of these versions, but if I had to pick just one, I’d probably plump for the Beckinsale variant by a whisker.


7 responses to “Film review: Emma (1996) and Emma (1996)

  1. ealasaid

    I was just messaging a friend about it and she said she read somewhere that it was done “to show Knightley in a place of vulnerability”.

    I said it actually put me in a place of vulnerability, because I almost had a stroke when I saw it. I was so surprised.

    I can rent it on Amazon Prime and will do that at some point. I recently watched the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version and it left me unmoved somehow with the exception of a few scenes. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel convinced by it. I always felt aware that I was watching a costume drama. Plus they really skirted over Jane’s situation with Frank and didn’t portray how much she was suffering; that gutted the story a bit.

    • Mary Kingswood

      I find that quite a lot with the modern versions. They lavish so much attention on costumes and sets, but the actors have trouble with the accents and they just can’t do snooty aristocrats in the way that all the RADA-trained ones in earlier generations did. Plus they emote all the time in a terribly un-Regency fashion.

  2. ealasaid

    I saw a clip on YouTube from the new Emma film that came out in February 2020.


    • Mary Kingswood

      I’ve had the DVD on pre-order for ages, and it finally arrives tomorrow. I’ll post a review as soon as I’ve stopped clutching my pearls.

      • ealasaid

        The 2020 film got excellent reviews from professional critics but Amazon customers seem to either love it or detest it. I have to watch this soon.

        • Mary Kingswood

          I’ve just watched it, but I haven’t quite got my thoughts in order yet. I’m actually quite meh about it. The nudity isn’t outrageous, but the whole production is quite stylised and artificial. I’ll have to watch it again before I post a review, though.

          • ealasaid

            I watched it today so these are my spontaneous reactions. I’ll probably have more thoughts after it sinks in.

            In a way, it was neither fish nor fowl. Sometimes it really flirted with the line of being satire or farce, almost a spoof of Austen. At other times it seemed to want to be sincere and truly mine the emotions of the story. All of it was exaggerated as compared to the book. There was quite a bit of crying and yelling and I kept remembering you saying how restrained those people were. They made Emma’s rudeness and arrogance more pronounced, and likewise her shame and remorse more pronounced. Knightley was quite emotive and vulnerable, and while I liked the actor, I wasn’t sure that was Jane Austen’s Knightley. I did appreciate Miss Bates’ characterization as she seemed more like an actual person and less of a caricature than has been portrayed in other film versions. The actor playing Mr. Woodhouse was delightful but sliding down the bannister didn’t fit. Harriet was portrayed very well, and with more range of feeling than I’ve seen in other productions. Conversely, Jane and Frank were a bit underdeveloped in comparison. I didn’t understand the purpose of Emma’s bloody nose in the proposal scene.

            I did like the stylish camera angles and shots. Those were often impressive. The settings and costumes and scenery were gorgeous. Those shirt collars so high up against the men’s cheeks were unlike anything I’ve seen before and I wondered how accurate they were, but everything was beautiful to behold.

            In some places I found the exaggerations fun, and in some places not so much. I got a kick out Mr. and Mrs. Elton, even if they were over the top. Her hair bow was hilarious. I also liked Emma’s and Harriet’s reactions when Jane sat down to play the pianoforte and was immediately revealed as a virtuoso. On the other hand, John Knightley and Isabella being portrayed as overwhelmed and miserable squabbling parents I didn’t find entertaining at all.

            I didn’t love it or hate it. I was left feeling unsure of what it wanted to be.