This low budget BBC adaptation seems awful at first, but if you stick with it, your patience is rewarded. I don't know what was going on at the BBC in the 1970s, but they seem to almost have made it a policy to employ unattractive actors. Doran Godwin, as Emma, is prim, sour-faced, and as rigid as a statue. I know from her bio that she was only twenty-two when this movie was made, but bad lighting, an unflattering hairstyle and an assortment of dreadful bonnets contrive to make her look closer to forty. She is also living proof that it is possible to be too thin. Debbie Bowen, who plays the hapless Harriet Smith, is more suitably girlish but over the course of six hours, her only line is to say "Oh, Miss Woodhouse!" in various states of breathy excitement or dismay. Ellen Dryden is a motherly and pleasant Mrs. Weston and Ania Marson is agreeable as Jane Fairfax. Constance Chapman performs admirably as Miss Bates in one of the most comic roles in this film. Of the ladies, Fiona Walker steals the show as Mrs. Elton. My main complaint about all the Emma movies, except this one, is that they cut Mrs. Elton's role down to a minimum, but this film gives full range to her role as the interfering, vulgar, loquacious bride of the odious Mr. Elton.
Of the gentlemen, the only one who makes an impression is Donald Eccles as Mr. Woodhouse, who is perfect as the fussy old man. John Carson as Mr. Knightly is probably the best the BBC could scrape up, considering their apparent dearth of attractive actors. Ditto for Robert East as Frank Churchill and Timothy Peters as Mr. Elton—who Jane Austen must have intended to have some qualities of a hottie or why would Emma and Harriet twitter over him so? They all turn in competent performances except for Robert "Frank Churchill" East who is so falsely genial you suspect his face might crack.
Overall, the cheap sets, polyester costumes, and cast that look nothing like you'd imagined them may make you want to stop watching, but by the time Mr. Elton returns to Highbury with his bride, you find you are hooked on the story and want to watch it to the end. The Emma character unbends considerably as Mrs. Elton provokes her temper.
A scene from this Emma--that's Miss Bates, with Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightly and Emma, with her back to us.
One-sentence summation: Only for diehards.
Emma: 1996 (I)
The Gwyneth Paltrow Emma is a good effort, for Hollywood. Of all the Emma films, there's the best Emma-Mr. Knightly chemistry between Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Ewan McGregor is foppish as Mr. Churchill and Polly Walker's Jane Fairfax is as dull as Emma says she is. I love Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates and Juliet Stevenson's Mrs. Elton has a hilarious way of savoring the phrase "Lord Suckling" in almost every line she utters. I admire Juliet Stevenson, but Mrs. Elton's part is the briefest in this film, which is disappointing, although they do let her chatter through the closing credits. Toni Collette is another actress I admire, but she is not right as Harriet Smith who is supposed to be pretty and charming, not plain and awkward. Alan Cumming performs admirably as Mr. Elton.
One-sentence summation: Good light entertainment.
Emma: 1996 (II)
The Kate Beckinsale Emma was overshadowed by the more glamorous Gwyneth Paltrow version, but this movie is well worth seeing. The Harriet-Mr. Elton "courtship" is dispatched speedily here and we move quickly to the weightier story of the Frank Churchill-Jane Fairfax-Emma love triangle. I like it that this movie gave more footage to some minor characters, such as Mr. Knightley's brother, who bitches mightily about having to leave the comfort of Hartfield for a Christmas party at the Weston's. This movie also does full justice to the strawberry picking party and the excursion to Box Hill, which I seem to recall are treated as one event in some of the other Emmas. Kate Beckinsale is a wonderful Emma, likeable yet faulty. Mark Strong is an angry Mr. Knightly and Bernard Hepton is so adorable as Mr. Woodhouse, that I want to put him in my pocket and take him with me everywhere. Prunella Scales (of Fawlty Towers) puts a lot of personality into the Miss Bates role. She appears to be really enjoying herself. Raymond Coultard is a glamorous Frank Churchill and Samantha Morton plays Harriet Smith well, although she has the odd look of having only just lost her baby teeth. Olivia Williams is Jane Fairfax and she is the only "Jane" you can believe actually being in love with anybody. This movie has the best Jane-Frank Churchill chemistry. Lucy Robinson is hilarious as Mrs. Elton. (If she looks familiar, it's because she played the snobbish Mrs. Hurst in the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride & Prejudice.) I liked the dialogue in this film—I haven't read Emma in ages, but it seems closest to the book.
One-sentence summation: The brainy choice.
This is the Romola Garai version and at first I was turned off by how the story starts in the infancies of Emma, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax, with a narrator telling us that the three of them are somehow "bound together." What a load of claptrap! After a while, however, this film grew on me. This movie boasts the hottest Mr. Elton—Blake Ritson is dreamy. Romola Garai is certainly lovely and is a pettishly selfish Emma, although I may be confusing her a bit with the character she plays in Daniel Deronda, which I also saw recently. I like Louise Dylan's portrayal of Harriet Smith—she is the closest to how I imagined Harriet when I read the book-- and Michael Gambon is wonderful in everything he does, so he makes a nice Mr. Woodhouse. Johnny Lee Miller is too boyish to be Mr. Knightly, which is a shame because I loved him in Byron. Tamsin Grieg plays Miss Bates and she seems to be modeling her performance on Sophie Thompson's. She looks nearsighted and vulnerable and is the unhappiest-appearing Miss Bates of the four. I know Tamsin Grieg as the wine-swilling and hilarious "Fran" of the TV show Black Books, so it's hard for me to reconcile her in this role. (Incidentally, Black Books—the only TV show that appeals specifically to bookish, antisocial people such as myself-- is my all-time favorite show.) Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton is more bitchy than funny, and too young. You could argue that a new bride was supposed to be very young, but Mrs. Elton of the book is so pushy and forward and set in her opinions, that you imagine her as mature. Laura Pyper and Rupert Evans did not make much of an impression as Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. This is a four-part BBC miniseries, so there's time for more details than you'll see in the previous two Emmas. One-sentence summation: A fabulous Emma extravaganza.
The Official Patience Crabstick Emma Awards.
Best Emma: (tie) Romola Garai and Kate Beckinsale
Best Mr. Knightly: Jeremy Northam
Best Harriet Smith: Louise Dylan
Best Mr. Elton: Blake Ritsen
Best Jane Fairfax: Olivia Williams
Best Frank Churchill: Raymond Coultard
Best Mrs. Elton: (tie) Fiona Walker and Lucy Robinson
Best Mr. Woodhouse: Bernard Hepton
Best Miss Bates: Prunella Scales
Best Costumes: Emma, 2009
It's hard to say which film is best overall since each has its strengths and weaknesses, but I am partial to the Romola Garai and the Kate Beckinsale versions.