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Fun Friday–Emma

Friday, March 21, 2008


This Sunday marks the return of the Jane Austen series on PBS’s Masterpiece Classics (which means the spring membership drive is OVER! Yay!)

Emma Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale, Pearl Harbor) has a penchant for matchmaking, despite her imperfect success rate. Curiously, as Emma is forcing introductions, she seems entirely disinterested in finding a match for herself. She does feel a twinge of interest in Frank Churchill, (Raymond Coulthard, He Knew He Was Right) and a brotherly regard for Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong, Stardust). When Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams, The Sixth Sense, Miss Austen Regrets) enters the scene with a certain air of mystery, intrigue gets layered into Jane Austen’s tale of misconstrued romances.  (summary courtesy PBS)

I am going to be woman enough to admit that Emma is my least favorite Jane Austen novel. Jane Austen herself called Emma “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”

There are several things that set Emma apart from Austen’s other heroines, like Lizzy Bennet or Anne Elliot. Emma is the only one of the six (seven, counting Marianne Dashwood, eight if you count Jane Bennet) major heroines for whom finances aren’t a problem. Emma is wealthy. She doesn’t need to worry about securing a good marriage to ensure a comfortable future. In fact, Emma informs her protege, the poor Harriet Smith, that she plans never to marry, because she doesn’t need to. Emma is also the first in precedence in her neighborhood/social circle. She is the woman everyone admires and defers to, so that when she deigns to bestow her time and attention on Harriet, the foundling orphan who grew up in a nearby girls’ school, it is seen as an act of great benevolence. Emma is more closely related to Miss Caroline Bingley or Elizabeth Elliot than to Lizzy or Anne—she thinks more highly of herself than she should and looks down upon those she considers unworthy or beneath her.

Yet Jane Austen manages to redeem her in the end. The metaphoric mirror is held before her, and she realizes the bad judgment she’s used, the awful way she’s treated people, and the fact that she may have lost her only chance at real love—and admits that she deserves to lose him.

But never fear—an Austen hero always comes through in the end! Here, again, there are differences that set him apart. Mr. George Knightley is the oldest of all the Austen heroes, yea, older even than good ol’ Colonel Brandon with his flannel waistcoats. Mr. Knightley is thirty-seven years old, to Emma’s twenty-one (similar to Col. Brandon’s thirty-six to Marianne’s seventeen). He has known her since she was born, lived a mile away at Donwell Abbey all her life, has been a frequent and welcomed visitor over the years, and is related to Emma by marriage—her older sister to his younger brother (unlike Fanny and Edmund from Mansfield Park, who are first cousins and have lived in the same house since she was eight years old). Like the other Austen heroes, he is driven by his high morals and his concern for those less fortunate than himself—and by his love for our heroine (though we’re never really sure why).

There are several other important secondary characters, primary amongst them are Harriet Smith, Reverend Elton, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax. But I’ll let you watch the movie to figure out their characters.

Now, let’s talk adaptations.

More people are familiar with the 1996 theatrical-release adaptation of this film, starring Gwenyth Paltrow (with her terrible, put-on British accent) as Emma and the glorious Jeremy Northam (whom, yes, I did forget to mention in my Favorite British Actors list) as Mr. Knightley. However, the adaptation that is airing on PBS this weekend is the much better Andrew Davies–penned adaptation done for the ITV/A&E in 1997, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. In the ’97 version, the characters are much more richly drawn, and, in my opinion, Kate Beckinsale makes a much more likable and believable Emma than does Paltrow. She brings a vulnerability to the character that Paltrow’s Emma doesn’t possess. (She also brings a genuine British accent to the role, but I digress.)

So, without further ado . . . a head-to-head comparison of the actors:

Emma Woodhouse: Gwyneth Paltrow vs. Kate Beckinsale

Gwyneth Paltrow brought a petulance and haughtiness to the role that made her into more of an ice-queen than I believe is found in the characterization in the book. And I didn’t quite believe her reformation in the end.

Kate Beckinsale gives the superior performance of the two, in my opinion. She is a little more snarky, but it comes across less as being cold (like Paltrow) and more as a defense mechanism—to hide any sense of vulnerability she feels, because with her position, she cannot show weakness. And, frankly, I happen to think Kate Beckinsale is prettier.

Mr. George Knightley: Jeremy Northam vs. Mark Strong

Ever since I first saw The Net back in 1993 or ’94, I’ve loved Jeremy Northam. He was the saving grace of the theatrical version of Emma for me, even though I’m not sure his interpretation of the character is spot-on. He does bring a little more lightness and good humor to the role than Mark Strong, but there are a few scenes when he’s just a little too light-hearted to do the character justice. But his “badly done, Emma!” scene makes me cringe every time, he’s so powerful.

The first time I saw the A&E adaptation—after having seen the theatrical release—I wasn’t impressed with Mark Strong as Knightley. He was forgettable. He was stiff and formal and dry. But then, last fall, I saw Stardust, in which Mark Strong plays the delightfully villainous Septimus. Afterward, Ruth and I got to talking about him—about how much he reminded us of “that guy” who played Knightley in the Beckinsale version of Emma. Low and behold, it was the very same actor! So, is it weird that I now really like Mark Strong in this role because he was so good in Stardust? Or is it strange that the first notice I’ve taken of either of these actors was in a movie where they were playing the bad guy? Many years later, now, and more familiar with the story (I hadn’t read Emma before seeing either movie the first time), I have to say that Mark Strong’s potrayal is closer to how I imagine Knightley behaving when I read the book.

Harriet Smith: Toni Collette vs. Samantha Morton

Toni Collette—who is actually Australian, not British—plays a Harriet Smith who is a slack-mouthed simpleton. She cannot seem to come up with a unique thought of her own, and depends too greatly on Emma. Much of what was done to her character was done for comic effect, but it just makes the character look stupid, which she wasn’t.

Samantha Morton gives us a much softer, more humble version of Harriet Smith. She pays attention to what Emma says because she respects Emma’s position, not because she can’t think for herself. And she fits the physical description of Harriet from the book much better.

Jane Fairfax: Polly Walker vs. Olivia Williams

The weird thing about the casting of Polly Walker as Jane Fairfax in the theatrical version is that she resembles Greta Scacchi, who plays Mrs. Weston (her future step-mother-in-law). That, and she just looked too old for the role.

I’ve really become an Olivia Williams fan of late. I think her look is a little softer, her demeanor more retiring, as is fitting for the character of Jane Fairfax. But, frankly, both actresses do an adequate job in the role.

Frank Churchill: Ewan McGregor vs. Raymond Coulthard

Yes, there is a reason I’ve saved Frank Churchill for last—and that’s because Ewan McGregor was so laughably bad in this role, I almost feel sorry for him. With as much as I love him in Revenge of the Sith (Star Wars #3), and with his wonderfully romantic performance in Miss Potter, he’s AWFUL in the theatrical release of Emma. Then, there’s the issue of the cat that crawled up onto his head and died there . . .

I haven’t ever seen Raymond Coulthard in anything else. He’s a decent actor and fulfilled the requirements of the role much better than Ewan did. And if that’s not his real hair, it’s a much better wig than Ewan’s.

Links of Interest
Interview with screenwriter Andrew Davies (see #10)
Listing on
Main page at PBS’s Masterpiece Classics site
Wikipedia Article on Emma
Full Text of Emma on the Republic of Pemberley

For more information on Jane Austen and all of her works:
The Jane Austen Society of North America
The Republic of Pemberley

  1. lookingforlifeshumor permalink
    Friday, March 21, 2008 10:08 am

    I love it – so true and I agree! I am very much looking forward to Emma Sunday night and your post just added to the anticipation!


  2. Friday, March 21, 2008 10:57 am

    While I’m not quite as unhappy with Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Emma, I agree with your other comparisons. One critic said that the theatrical film was more lushly produced; but I loved the natural lighting in the A&E version, and the details of daily life that are so casually included. I also loved Bernard Hepton’s take on Mr. Woodhouse more. His performance, even when he does not speak, is priceless. James Cosmo is too virile a man to play him, and I thought he was all wrong for the part. Jeremy vs. Mark? This is where I keep ping ponging back and forth. Both are yummy. One is more virile and darkly handsome (Mark), the other is more romantic. Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. I’ll take both, thank you.


  3. Alina Gordelli permalink
    Friday, March 21, 2008 4:04 pm

    Mr Knightly – for me exists for ever with Jeremy Northam’s voice, face and kindness. I think he maid this role his. Remember, Emma saying in the the book that Mr Knightly always was a cheerful part of their lifes? Where is this cheerfulness in Mark Strong??? Or kindness? If it was sublime and hidden it was hidden too well indeed…


  4. Friday, March 21, 2008 4:09 pm

    I’m so glad we’re back to Jane Austen on Sunday night. I thought I was the only one who noticed Jeremy Northam in The Net–you never hear mention of that role. I think I fell asleep while watching Emma–twice–because I just don’t remember it!


  5. Alina Gordelli permalink
    Friday, March 21, 2008 5:06 pm

    Sorry for the strong views, but I thought Gwyneth was frsh Emma and quite tolerable (may be due to Jeremy Northam’s noble presence), but I do find Kate Beckinsale unpleasant and can not warm towards her.


  6. Saturday, March 22, 2008 4:13 am

    In the summer of ’96, when Gwyneth’s “Emma” came out, I was newly pregnant with my first baby.

    So, being a teacher, I was off school and not working. I went to see “Emma” every day for so many days in a row, I’m embarrassed to type the actual number. HA! And I cried like a baby at every showing. Jeremy in front of that window: “…Indeed we are not…” **sigh**

    I did not watch it so many times that my son looks like Mr. Knightly. But he is a pretty handsome little dude all the same. 🙂


  7. Alina Gordelli permalink
    Saturday, March 22, 2008 9:13 pm

    Jeremy Northam’s screen presence is so intensive that he always becomes a centre of attention. This requires real acting skills: to draw the attention of the audience on yourself, while not accentuating excessively your tone or mannerism.
    Gwen, hope your boy will grow up as talented as JN. 🙂


  8. Monday, March 24, 2008 1:58 am

    Kaye, I love your honesty. So refreshing that you have a decisive opinions!

    We agree on everything! That is a first for me. Keep up the good work. It’s hard work being brilliant!!! Oh, that bit was Emma sliping in.

    Cheers, Laurel Ann


  9. Monday, March 24, 2008 1:07 pm

    Haha, I love your description of Ewan’s hair as Frank Churchill! Except I always thought it looked like he was wearing a wig designed to look like a straw broom or something…lol!

    Likewise, my appreciation of Mark Strong as Knightley has grown since seeing him in Stardust (and Miss Pettigrew!). It’s a little weird that happened AFTER seeing him in other completely unrelated roles…lol!


  10. Toni permalink
    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 7:01 pm

    I thought Mark Strong was excellent. The way he slowly comes into view in each scene in a quiet way. It took a while for me to realize he was falling in love with Emma, even while he scolded her many times. Haven’t not read the book it was a big surprise to see them fall in love. Do you think he really went swimming with Mr. Darcy?



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