so a couple weeks ago, i watched the PBS/Masterpiece Classic version of Emma online here. being a fan of Jane Austen books and films, and already a huge fan of Emma specifically, i immediately started taking notes. below are some of my thoughts and opinions on the film, mainly comparing it to the 1996 version with Gwenyth Paltrow (that i will refer to as “the GP version”) with perhaps a reference here and there to the BBC version with Kate Beckinsdale as the title character.
now, i should say – the GP version is a huge favorite of mine, and i’m not sure this newer version will replace that favoritism, but it had some strong merit that pleased me very much.
here are my thoughts: (note: no promises to avoid “spoilers.” then again, if you know the story, how much can really be given away?)
overall story and plot development
outstanding! i felt that this version unfolded and developed the storyline and plot superbly! given that the whole film was nearly 6 hours long, they better have done the story well, right? everything from showing the sending away of frank churchill and jane fairfax as children, to emma’s mother dying and miss taylor being hired to care for emma and isabella, the “backstory” was fantastic!
they also more clearly explained and portrayed the nuances of the story. what i appreciated most was the greater detail and depth given to the whole “campbell/fairfax/dixon” triangle that is frequently alluded to in the GP version but rather quickly skimmed over leaving you a bit confused. there was no confusion about it in this one. it was clear and lent itself nicely to the rest of the story.
the pace of the film – again, wonderful benefit to having a much longer running time – helped to more clearly portray the pace and style of life in that era, in my opinion. not that i’m an expert on that era of history, but…
however, there were 2 drawbacks worth noting in this version – 1 major and 1 minor.
the minor one was the quick and clever scene transitions from the GP version. overlapping lines and scenes in the GP version made it entertaining and fun and also made it feel well made. this newer version was much more standard (boring?) in its filming on that level.
the major drawback was the dialogue. i remember why i struggled so much to read the book after seeing the GP version: because i realized early on that the GP version had actually done a VERY good job in pulling the dialogue almost directly (albeit often abridged versions of many conversations) from the actual novel! all those clever quotables we love from the GP version? yeah, pretty much directly from jane austen herself. and i’m sad to report, i think i could count on one hand the number of those lines that made it into this newer version. so sad. well, to me anyway, seeing that i’m such a sucker for good dialogue. so that was definitely a huge disappointment.
the lack of exceptional dialogue affected some of the scenes as well, especially toward the end. the climaxing of emma and mr knightley’s engagement, the announcement that harriet is finally engaged to robert martin, etc. the drama and clean cleverness with which those scenes were made in the GP version were largely due to the dialogue. so i was less satisfied by the dramatic elements in those scenes in this newer version.
i really enjoyed most of the characters. this version really fleshed out more of the “smaller” characters from the GP version. Miss Taylor/Mrs Westin was a full matriarchal figure well beyond her wedding, albeit still very subdued and sweet, giving credence to Emma’s strong-willed, spoiled and somewhat impetuous ways. Mr Woodhouse (Emma’s father), John & Isabella Knightley, and Jane Fairfax are all given more screen time and more character development.
– Miss Bates was my biggest disappointment as far as the characters go. the actress who played her in this version did very little to variegate the role from the GP version, from her vocal inflections down to the nervous laugh and the voice trail-off when she runs out of things to say. she was pretty much identical. i was unimpressed. same with Mrs Bates (the elderly mother), who randomly “finds” her voice at the end of the movie when all is well again. huh?? whatever.
– Mr Elton was better portrayed in this newer version, in my opinion. he was handsome and more obviously “the catch” people were talking about, yet he was horribly conceited. while alan cumming as mr elton in the GP version was more entertaining by far in its extremity, he was a bit goofy at times. this mr elton felt more accurate and realistic, which made his rejection of harriet and emma’s misinterpretation of his affections much more poignant. (however, they don’t show enough of harriet really “falling” for him, and so her melancholy after he marries is too extreme to match what she was supposed to have felt for him beforehand…) and i’m sorry, but no one can match the mrs elton in the GP version – juliet stevenson is superb and unmatched in my mind. it just cannot be done, so i will say nothing more on the subject.
– Frank Churchill – man, you really hate the guy! they did a great job in making him the weasel, especially because he is good looking and likeable from the start – the perfect jane austen scoundrel. many of the jane austen films miss the mark in portraying the scoundrel well on film (ie it just doesn’t seem like he did anything all that bad). they definitely left no doubt with frank churchill. he goes far beyond just trying to avoid appearing favorable toward jane (since they are secretly engaged the whole time), but he actually goes out of his way to repeatedly be rude and cruel toward her, insulting her behind her back, snubbing her in public, and very negatively influencing emma along the way, sucking her into his meanness (as is evidenced when it climaxes with her rude comment to miss bates during the picnic at Box Hill and mr knightley later reprimands her). watching those parts made my heart ache for jane and made my blood boil toward frank. what a jerk! well done masterpiece classics for producing such a strong emotional reaction toward a character!
quick note on jane – she is not so stoic and distant (and may i say suspicious and creepy-looking?) as in the GP version. she is played as being more quiet and reserved and innocent. and good. so very sweet and good. especially at the end when she takes frank back after his AWFUL behavior toward her.
– Harriet Smith – another victory here! harriet felt SO much more accurately portrayed. she is young, fairly pretty, but innocent and far less well-bred than emma. they had a few key scenes throughout where they showed this marked distance in class – not knowing all the manners at a formal dinner, a very simple bedroom, far less mature/composed/educated/well-spoken (although she has her moments of excellent and true character, especially toward emma that put emma in her place once or twice). you really get a better sense of why she is something of a “project” for emma. and you also feel more strongly that robert martin is a nice match for harriet, both in station and in personality. not to mention, they actually show bits of harriet’s relationship background with the martins (again – better overall story development).
– Mr George Knightley – first off, i must say that i will always and forever be a fan of jeremy northam and his portrayal of mr knightley. plus, i’m a huge “knightley” fan over P&P’s darcy. in the GP version mr knightley he is a handsome and composed gentleman of class. a good man. and clearly much older than emma, which is more accurate to the book. i didn’t feel that this newer version was necessarily a huge improvement on his character, but it also wasn’t worse in comparison by any means! it was just… different? and i really like both! of course, it probably helped that i really loved jonny lee miller when i first saw him as edmund in mansfield park. so he had my favorable inclination to begin with. in this version he is more of a multi-faceted character. far less stoic than jeremy northam’s portrayal. he is amiable and wise and mature and good – and they show you howso far beyond just his correction of emma and his “rescue” of harriet at the ball. he does kind acts in secret and cares about people in a quiet and gentle way. how can you not love his character?! my one complaint is that he doesn’t look or come off as being, what is it? 16 years older than emma? yeah… but overall i really liked him! (note – he still isn’t really flawed much in this version either. mr knightley’s imperfections are more clearly seen in the BBC version, but that is probably that version’s only strength.)
– Emma – i figured i’d end with her if only just to try and keep you all reading this far, haha! so devious, i know. did it work? 🙂 i felt that the strengths and weaknesses of emma’s character in this version are both what i loved and what i disliked about it. she was a bit more real. more “raw”, if you will, in her thoughts and actions. her facial expressions are deeper and more extreme. however, this also lent itself to coming off as perhaps a tad more immature and childish than the GP version made her. and less composed. which, i’m not sure how well that stands up against the general culture of that era. the GP version at least made it very believeable that emma was considered a fine, upstanding wealthy young lady with a healthy measure of good-breeding and poise, whose primary weaknesses were interfering too heavily in people’s personal lives, manipulating and misreading social interactions, and thinking far too highly of her ability to comprehend people’s hearts and emotions and thus her skill as a match maker. and perhaps desiring the good approval of the wrong people sometimes (ie – frank churchill). this newer version, however, while making her look and act a bit closer to her age (21 years), makes her out to be far more immature and childish than i felt emma actually was. slightly loud and sometimes almost indecorous, almost overly “american” if i may say as much. so while i generally enjoyed romola garai’s portrayal – like i said, she seemed a touch more real and relateable – and she was definitely entertaining – i think GP is still my emma of choice.
this version had many strengths and merits to it – i just don’t think i could choose between the GP version and this as a favorite. i honestly enjoyed them both, and enjoyed pondering their strengths and weaknesses.
so there are my thoughts and opinions. if you’ve read this far – wow. i am wildly impressed. 🙂 i know there will only be a few of you with a vested interest in such a comparison, so this was largely an exercise for my own fun and benefit. thank you for reading!
i would be very interested in the thoughts and opinions of any of you as well! especially if you’ve also seen both versions, and/or read the book too. please share!!