Saturday, October 24, 2009

Top 10 Austen adaptations: #4

~No. 4 - Emma 1996, starring Kate Beckinsale~

Emma - 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? :-)

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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!!) 

Emma - Beckinsale
Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse with Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley

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. 

Emma - Beckinsale
Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) and Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard)

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).

Emma - Beckinsale
Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton)

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! 

Emma - Beckinsale
Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong) and Mrs. Elton (Lucy Robinson)

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.

Emma - Beckinsale
Mrs Elton, Miss Bates (Prunella Scales), Harriet, Emma, Jane, and Mrs. Weston (Samantha Bond)

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. 

Emma - Beckinsale

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. 

Emma - Beckinsale
Samantha Bond as Mrs. Weston

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. . .  

Emma - Beckinsale

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.

Emma - Beckinsale
Another shot of Oliva Williams as Jane Fairfax. . . 

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. . . 

Emma - Beckinsale

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.

Emma - Beckinsale

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lovely pictures! Kate's not Hollywood-ized yet. Although I like the Miramax version better, this one is really good, too. I agree that Olivia Williams is a great Jane Fairfax, better than the Miramax version's. Just looooove Emma--the novel & the adaptations! Oh, and Mark Strong is funny (and sinister) in Stardust, if you've ever seen that movie (which I don't recommend; his performance is the only good thing about it).

~obsessivejaneite

The Editrix said...

Kate's not Hollywood-ized yet

Exactly! She looks so much nicer without all the makeup. . . Kate's a natural beauty, she doesn't need all the other "stuff" to look gorgeous!

I haven't seen Stardust. It's no good, you say? Hm, that's a shame. :-( Still, I'd like to see it sometime, if only to check out Ben Barnes' and Mark Strong's performances.

Siminy said...

Some parts of Stardust are funny! Robert De Niro's in particular. It was written as a fairie tale for adults so is different.

Mark Strong. Hmmm I really didn't like him as Mr Knightly. At all. So much so I didn't like Mark Strong as a person until I saw him in Stardust! Being thrilled with his performance, I decided I liked him. I must watch this Emma again. I refused to watch it a while back... I should try watch it again, along with Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet in. Sorry, I can't remember what year it is from!

the W. family said...

Elise,
I am enjoying this series. Was it hard to decide which order to put the films in? I think it would be a challenge for me to pick an absolute favorite - there are things I like and dislike in the different Jane Austen films I've seen! Anyway, I've enjoyed reading what you write about each film. :)
~Alyssa

Miss Jen said...

Yes... Elise =) *sigh*
I am enjoying these posts
immensely!! :)
I really should re-watch this
version of Emma I have watched
it once through and would benefit
from a second screening. ;)
For some reason I did not think Kate
looked like Emma~ but I have to admit she did an AMAZING acting job and she is gorgeous!!

I also have to say Raymond Coulthard is my favorite Frank Churchill... when I first watched the movie I was most impressed by his performance.
Doesn't Lucy Robinson play~ "Mrs. Hurst" in the 1995 P&P?
I love recognizing other actors
in films. ;)

Hope you are having a lovely day!
Love Always~ Miss Jen

Jo March said...

I love this adaption! I feel the same way about the down-to-earthness of it, how it shows what life was really like.

For me, it fun to see Lucy Robinson in a role very similar to her role as Mrs. Hurst in P & P 1995 :)

Marian said...

Maybe I should rewatch this one (I only saw it once), but I really don't like this portrayal of Mr Knightley. I realize that Knightley and Emma are supposed to argue and have differences, but when it comes to Mr Knightley bursting out "To get his hair cut?!", it just seems overdone. He seemed to be often fuming, and even at the end of the film, he did not seem very composed. 2009 Mr Knightley gets pretty animated, too, but at least we do see his quiet, kindly side.

LadyBug-Laurie said...

I too love this adaptation, it was the first Emma I ever saw and the ending surprised me so much! :)
I love these photos you've added, some I've never seen before.

Elisabeth said...

Oh my, where do you find all these beautiful pictures? I totally agree with you about this adaptation; it's my favorite too. I'm planning on doing a run-down of my favorite period dramas as soo as I get the time, but I don't know if you're left me anything to say about this one! :)

Tracie said...

I am enjoying this series.....and I have actually never seen this adaptation of Emma. After your review, I am definitely going to have to check it out!

Anonymous said...

On second thought, Stardust does have some good points. It's got some funny parts, and Mark Strong's great, and it's entertaining, but it's not rated PG-13 for nothing. It's kind of an older teen/adult fantasy, and I guess I just prefer the cleaner kiddie stuff, like Narnia and Lord of the Rings (okay, the latter is PG-13, but it's so good it has to be an exception!). :D

Speaking of LOTR, I had some free time today so I watched Lorna Doone! (Sorry, I just had to tell somebody, since everyone I personally know has no idea what Lorna Doone is, except for the cookies.) I told my sister it was a sort of a British Western with bits of Robin Hood and LOTR and a heavy dose of Romeo and Juliet.

Other LD first impressions: I was happy to see someone fall in love with a bespectacled girl (Lizzie!), which is something I feel movies give us little of, and so good for the guy to be James McAvoy, too! The music has a nostalgic Renaissance feel to it, which is beautiful. It's cool to see a movie set in the Stuart time period with more authenticity than Pirates of the Caribbean.

Oh, dear. So embarrassed (and sorry!) to have posted so much stuff that has nothing to do with Emma! Anyway, gotta go back to studying now. Back to the postmodern period...

Keep up the great posts! :-)

~obsessivejaneite

The Editrix said...

Obsessive Janeite - that's awesome! :-D I'm so glad you enjoyed Lorna Doone!

I told my sister it was a sort of a British Western with bits of Robin Hood and LOTR and a heavy dose of Romeo and Juliet

LOL, that's a great way to describe it! :-)

It's kind of an older teen/adult fantasy, and I guess I just prefer the cleaner kiddie stuff, like Narnia and Lord of the Rings

Yeah, me too. . . :-/ Well, if I ever watch it, I'll keep my expectations fairly low. . . hopefully that way I'll enjoy it more. . .

Alyssa - Absolutely it's been hard choosing what order to put them in!! I didn't have much trouble deciding upon my all-time favourite, but working out the order of the others has been difficult! Even now, I don't know if I've got the order 100% right. . .

Miss Jen:

For some reason I did not think Kate
looked like Emma~ but I have to admit she did an AMAZING acting job and she is gorgeous!!


I completely agree! :-)

I also have to say Raymond Coulthard is my favorite Frank Churchill... when I first watched the movie I was most impressed by his performance.

Agreed! Again, LOL.

Doesn't Lucy Robinson play~ "Mrs. Hurst" in the 1995 P&P?
I love recognizing other actors
in films. ;)


Yep, she does!

Jo March:

I feel the same way about the down-to-earthness of it, how it shows what life was really like.

Yeah, that was one of the great things about this movie.

For me, it fun to see Lucy Robinson in a role very similar to her role as Mrs. Hurst in P & P 1995 :)

LOL, it sure was!! Lucy Robinson/Mrs Hurst didn't get many lines in P&P, so it was great seeing her in a slightly bigger role.

Marian:

2009 Mr Knightley gets pretty animated, too, but at least we do see his quiet, kindly side.

I think that may be partly because it's a 4 hour miniseries, rather than a 1 1/2 hour movie. More time to show his quiet, kindly side, as you said. But I agree, I'm starting to like JLM as Mr. Knightley.

Laurie, Elisabeth - glad you like the pictures. :-) Elisabeth, I look forward to reading your post/s!

Tracie, let me know what you think of it after you see it!

Whew, lots of comments! Keep them coming, everyone! :-D

Charity U said...

Hello, Elise!

I found this post randomly while looking for pictures for my post contrasting the Emma. I'll admit up front that this is, of the three I've seen, my least favorite version. I'm used to a blond Emma -- no doubt that's some of it. :) But, I enjoyed your review! I did REALLY like Jane Fairfax in this one...she was just likable! :)

Anyway, that's all I popped in to say. :)