Release Year: 1996
Actors: Emma – Gwyneth Paltrow
Mr. Knightley – Jeremy Northam
Harriet Smith – Toni Collette
Frank Churchill – Ewan McGregor
Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”
This and the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” were probably my earliest adaptations of Jane Austen books that I watched repeatedly. Since the release of the 2009 version of “Emma,” I’ve preferred that one, but much of that comes down to its longer length and my never-ending love for Johnny Lee Miller. I ultimately still enjoy this version and can appreciate Paltrow’s version of the main character.
The movie definitely stays more true to the book in the first half of the story, covering the Harriet/Elton/Emma love triangle pretty effectively. Once Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax arrive on the scene, the story diverges more and leaves about a bunch of fairly critical information/scenes that really establish the situation going on there. While effectively changing the way that story line plays out and the fallout of that situation, overall, given the time restraints of this movie, things still seems to come together well enough. If you were going to cut back on a portion of the story, it makes sense that it would be that one. It really does take all of those extra scenes and little side comments from Frank Churchill to establish the full history of between him and Jane and why she would choose to pursue being a governess. There’s no way to really include all of that without either cutting back on Harriet’s story or cutting back on Knightley and Emma, which would be inexcusable.
The movie keeps a few important lines of dialogue, but definitely strays pretty far from adhering to close to the original. More often than not, it will cover similar scenes and topics of conversation but mildly tweak the actual dialogue itself. Most of this works well enough, though I didn’t care as much for this version of the final romantic exchange between Mr. Knightley and Emma. Instead, I appreciated more the added small jokes that the movie threw in between these two characters which I thought worked very well and highlighted the good chemistry between the two actors.
While I still prefer the 2009 version (it’s really just impossible to compete with a version that can devote literally two times more time to the story), I do like this adaptation overall. I don’t have any real complaints with Paltrow’s interpretation of the character or much of what is cut. I also think the music, costuming, and many of the outdoor sets are also excellent and tie well together with the overall tone of the movie.
Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”
Since this film’s release, Gwyneth Paltrow has developed a certain reputation that often plays against her. I’m not quibbling with that, as she has definitely said and done some things that deserve all the raised eyebrows. But as a performer, I’ve never had a problem with her. And in my opinion she’s pretty perfectly cast as Emma. Even the weirdness of the actress kind of makes sense for a character like Emma!
While she definitely plays Emma a bit more cool than some of the version we’ll see later on, I do think that this interpretation is pretty close to the book’s description and to what one could expect of a lady of the time in her position. She’s polite and proper for the most part, but we do see small breaks that show that she’s still a flawed young woman: snapping a bit at Mr. Elton at the Christmas party, deferring performing at the party until Jane is suggested as an alternative, etc.
The movie also includes a bit of inner narration for the character which I think is an interesting and almost necessary aspect to really get at Emma’s inner thoughts and all the flaws in her own reasoning. To make up for where this tactic doesn’t work, the movie adds in more talks between Emma and Mrs. Weston that further elaborate. Emma confesses to Mrs. Weston the mess she made of the Elton/Harriet situation, swears off matchmaking, and then promptly begins wondering aloud who would be right for Harriet. She also confesses her realization about her own feelings for Mr. Knightley to Mrs. Weston later in the movie. Here, in something that I think is unique to this adaptation, we see Mrs. Weston give Emma instructions that exactly match what Emma had told Harriet to do with regards to Harriet’s love life earlier. It’s a nice touch that highlights just how much of Emma’s true wisdom came from Mrs. Weston originally, as we see in this later exchange that these instructions must have been things she had said before to Emma.
I also liked the way that Emma experiences the fall-out of her cruelty to Miss Bates. The event itself is made pretty heart-wrenching with Miss Bates commenting that she must be pretty intolerable for an old friend to say something like that. Mrs. Weston shoots her many disapproving looks. And, of course, the lecture from Mr. Knightley is harsh, and we see Emma immediately break down under the crushing disappointment of her friend. To make matters worse, in this version, Miss Bates refuses to see Emma the next day when Emma attempts to visit to make up for things.
I also really like Toni Collette’s version of Harriet. She’s immensely likable, and it’s impossible not to feel for her as she suffers from Emma’s nonsense. Another interesting change in her storyline is that Emma thinks up Harriet and Frank as a couple before the interaction with the gypsies. I’m not sure exactly why they changed this, as it seems much more random this way. Though we don’t hear any dialogue, I like that we see a small snippet of Emma having to confess to Harriet that she has yet again become the object of love of the man Harriet has been pining for. We see Harriet run from the room and it really help it hit home how hard this would have been for both Harriet and Emma. To balance this out, I really like that we get an additional scene, later, where Harriet herself tells Emma about her new engagement to Robert Martin, and the two make up. It’s a bit more happy and seems to set up a future of friendship between the two than the more distanced ending in the book, but I don’t mind the change.
Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
Jeremy Northam definitely brings his own take to the character of Mr. Knightley. I’m not sure how accurate I feel it is to the book version, however. Not that this is a huge complaint, as I think the version he brings works well with the overall tone of this movie. He’s much more teasing and laughing than the more generally serious Knightley we see in the book. The movie adds a number of additional quips and jokes between Emma and Knightley, and I think the chemistry between the two actors works well to establish this type of familiar, teasing friendship. Northam has a great way of laughing with his eyes whenever the camera cuts to him after one of Emma’s more silly moments. It’s a nice way of seeing him “in” on some of Emma’s plans that probably go unnoticed by most of the other people around them. Even their fight over Harriet and Robert Martin is more light-hearted than what we see in the book, with a few of the more heated exchanges getting broken up with humor.
The age difference thing was pretty weird, however. The movie goes out of its way to include a very specific line about how these two are 16 years apart in age, but this age discrepancy doesn’t hold true at all when actually looking at the characters involved. I’m not sure why they chose to even include this line as it wasn’t necessary in any way to the story they were telling and just threw me out of things since it seemed so glaringly inaccurate with the casting.
Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
I guess we’ll throw Frank Churchill in this section, though I think one of the bigger changes this movie makes is in really scaling back his storyline and making him much less “villainous” than he was in the book. For one, when he goes to confess to Emma in the first half of the movie, he ends up being interrupted and the way it is played makes it seem much more like he was actually planning on telling her the truth about him and Jane.
From there on out, he’s much less flirtatious with Emma than the version in the book. And he’s also much less cruel to Jane, both in secret jokes with Emma and in public. The Dixon joke goes nowhere, and we never see Emma and Frank put Jane on the spot over this. They don’t fight at the strawberry picking. Frank doesn’t flirt obnoxiously with Emma at Box Hill, instead spending his time distracting Mrs. Elton from her persistent haranguing of Jane about her future as a governess. And then due to all of this, Jane never takes the extreme step of actually reaching out to an employer and making plans for her future down that path. In the end, this leaves much of the harm from the Frank/Jane secret fairly toothless. Emma rants for a bit to Mrs. Weston about Frank’s being lucky that she wasn’t more attached, but from what we saw, Frank’s behavior to her wasn’t that extreme to begin with. All told, he gets off with much less criticism (particularly from Mr. Knightley) and behaves better here than he does in the book.
Ewan McGregor’s performance is solid, and he has a way of making his charm slightly sleazy at the same time, which immediately sets him apart from ever being considered a true love interest for Emma. He gets an opportunity to sing, as well, which is always a bonus!
Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
The romance is nice enough in this movie. I think it plays second fiddle to much of the comedy, however. Even Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship plays better in their teasing friendship stage than the actual romance itself. There’s this weird running commentary of them being like brother and sister and then not actually brother and sister that I just found off-putting. I don’t need the mental image of them being like siblings ever introduced in the equation, even if they set it aside later. Just leave it be.
The dance scene is also a bit of a let-down. The dance they used in particular had Northam needing to prance about a bit more than is becoming. And the way it is filmed is never very intimate, undercutting what is usually one of the more romantic (or at least important) scenes in any Austen story. The camera stays at a distance for much of it, and while I get the symbolism of Knightley and Emma always coming together and then moving apart, it didn’t really hit home the way other dance scenes in other Austen adaptations have.
Lastly, the proposal/love confession scene at the end of the movie. I liked the awkwardness at the lead up and the way Emma shuts him down only to catch him back up and continue the conversation. The movie does include the pivotal “if I loved you less maybe I could about it more” line, but this is one of the few moments where Northam’s winking smile undercuts the sincerity of the line that makes it really hit home. They also had to add in more lines to make up for the fact that Austen never actually wrote a response for Emma. It’s ok, but I wouldn’t list this scene as the best original writing in the movie, which is too bad.
Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Miss Bates is quite good in this version. She adds a few tics, like shouting random words at her elderly mother, and continuously interrupting herself to fetch napkins, that really work well. She doesn’t have tons of screen time, but she works well with what she has and sets the character up well enough that the viewer really feels the cruelty in Emma’s throwaway comment at her about talking too much.
Unfortunately, Mr. Woodhouse has even less screen time so much of his humor is drastically cut back. They still include the cake moment in the beginning of the movie, which is always funny. But for much of the rest of the movie he kind of fades into the background.
Instead, the Eltons, both Mr. and Mrs., really hold the spotlight on the comedy side of things. This version of Mr. Elton really leans in to the ridiculousness of the character. He’s not made out to be very handsome or charming at all, something that the character is noted as being in the book as Knightley comments that Elton won’t waste these advantages in marriage. One almost feels sorry for any potential future Harriet would have with this version of the character. His pestering of Emma at the Christmas party is quite funny. And his cruelty towards Harriet at the ball is equally harsh.
Mrs. Elton is pretty great all around. Her constant interrupting of Mr. Elton really cements the unfortunate future he has ahead of him with this woman he deemed better than the sweet Harriet. She doesn’t have tons of screen time, so we miss some of her good moments from the book, but the movie does what it can. Instead of having her lord her position as a new bride over the ball, the movie shows various characters spotting the Eltons coming and making quick escapes, another glance into the future these two have before them. She also gets the only break of the third wall in the entire film when she speaks directly to the camera/audience, criticizing Emma’s wedding for having a deplorable lack of satin.
Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”
The same dance used for Emma and Mr. Knightley is also used in the 1995 version of “Pride and Prejudice” for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. We see much less of it here, of course. I will say that I think it was much better suited for the latter film. The rather stuffy, overly regal tone of the dance fit better with Elizabeth’s perceptions of Darcy at the time. And the less intimate style of dance also suited the awkwardness of that situation for those two characters at that point in the story. In this story, the dance between Emma and Mr. Knightley should be one of the first overtly romantic moments we see. And, if nothing else, we should have a style of dance that highlights the close relationship these two already have, not something that distances them.
Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates are real life mother and daughter, though it was just chance that they were both cast. They are also mother and sister to Emma Thompson, so yet another Austen adaptation with some connection to that actress (the third)!
Ewan McGregor regretted being in this movie. It’s not super clear why, but he disliked his performance and noted that the atrocious wig was definitely not doing him any favors.
Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”
Mr. Knightley’s line here is “Try not to shoot my dogs.” This is part of the scene where they’re fighting over Harriet’s future and her turning down Robert Martin. It’s a nice example of the teasing approach to the character that Northam has.
In two weeks, I’ll review the 2009 version of “Emma”