~No. 4 - Emma 1996, starring Kate Beckinsale~
I still haven't seen Episode 4 of the BBC's Emma, but unless there is a miraculous turnaround in the series, I think ITV's 1996 TV movie is set to remain as my favourite Emma.
There are so many reasons to love this adapation. . . where to start? :-)
Kate Beckinsale as Emma. . . she doesn't look quite how I imagine Emma to look, but in terms of acting she was really very good here. I like her the best out of the Emmas I've seen - Kate, Gwyneth and Romola. Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley - brilliant! Jeremy Northam was too handsome and charming - if he'd been a few years younger, he would have been great as Frank Churchill. But Mark Strong is practically perfect as Mr. Knightley, in my humble opinion. I was recently reading an interview with Mark, where he is discussing playing Mr. Knightley, and it's clear just how well he understands this character. (As an aside, it's so refreshing to read an interview with an actor in an Austen movie who has a healthy level of respect for the novel they're working from, and who truly understands the character he/she is playing!!)
Some viewers have remarked that Mark Strong plays an overly angry, severe Mr. Knightley. I don't think this is Strong's fault. In my opinion, the limited runtime of the movie (107 minutes) is at least partly to blame. Most of Mr. Knightley's/Mark Strong's scenes are intense discussions and quarrels between himself and Emma - there isn't much time to show the more relaxed side of his nature.
One of this adaptation's stongest points is the excellent portrayal of many of the secondary characters - particularly Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Even though the movie is less than 2 hours in length, they've done a fantastic job of fleshing out Jane and Frank's characters and their love story (whereas this subplot is practically ignored in the Miramax version). Can I just briefly mention how much I love Olivia Williams as Jane? Simply wonderful. She will always be Jane Fairfax to me. And Frank Churchill is actually cute and charismatic in this version. . . for once, you can understand why Emma would fall partly in love with him (or at least imagine herself to be in love).
Other minor characters such as the Eltons, Miss Bates, Mrs Bates, Robert Martin, and Mr. Woodhouse are brilliantly done here - even though their time on-screen may be brief, you can still get a feel for who each character is, and what they are like. Also, this seems to be the only adaptation that gets Harriet Smith's character right!
So, whereas the Gwyneth Paltrow version emphasises Emma's and Mr. Knightley's relationship as much as possible, this adaptation is closer to the novel in that it gives a fascinating picture of a living, breathing community of people in 1810s rural England - not just a sweet love story. Hm, I phrased that wrongly - to call any one of Austen's romances "just a sweet love story" would be to do it a great injustice. . . but I'm sure you understand what I mean. The Paltrow version is about Emma + Mr. Knightley; the Beckinsale version is about Emma + Mr. Knightley and the community of Highbury.
Which leads to another thing that I love about this adaptation. Emma was made on a much more limited budget than, say, Sense and Sensibility or the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma. But in this case, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. The movie has a gritty, down-to-earth feel that is lacking from most other Austen adaptations - and period dramas in general, for that matter. This is arguably a much more realistic portrayal of Regency life than that shown in the two other major Emmas. Kate Beckinsale's costumes may not be as gorgeous as Gwyneth's, but they look like comfortable clothes that I wouldn't mind wearing in real life. Scenes of farm life and village life in Highbury add to the realism.
I guess it's just a matter of personal taste - I'm not too keen on the too-pretty, overly-sanitized view of 19th century life presented in many Austen movies; but on the other hand, it could be argued that the "gritty realism" is taken a step too far in movies like Mansfield Park 1999 or Pride and Prejudice 2005. Emma sits somewhere in the middle of the scale.
This post is getting long, but there's just one more issue that I'll bring up: the realism thing isn't just about aesthetics, or the "look" of the film. It's also something that is important on a deeper level as well. I'll try to explain. . .
Jane Austen's novel Emma is very funny, but it also has darker undertones at times. Frank Churchill is cruel and manipulative; all the loneliness and misery of Jane Fairfax's potential life as a governess is driven home (much has been written about the plight of 19th century governesses - do some research into the Brontes and their novels for more info); the desperate poverty of many of the village people and the "gipsies"; and the comparative poverty of the Bateses. Jane Austen doesn't choose to make these issues the focus of her novel, but they are present nonetheless. None of these topics are touched on in the Miramax version of the novel, but they are present in ITV's adaptation, just as they are in Austen's book.
Okay, I'd better stop now. Hopefully I haven't put you all to sleep by now. :P I hope you're enjoying this series of posts, because I know I am. . .
One more thing: if you're a fan of this adaptation, as I am, I highly recommend this book: The Making of Jane Austen's Emma. It features heaps of photos and info about the costumes, wigs, food, locations etc. used in this film, fascinating interviews with the cast and crew (including the Mark Strong one ;-) ), and the complete screenplay by Andrew Davies. It is no longer in print, but you can buy it second-hand on eBay or Amazon.