The Many Visions of Jane Austen’s Emma

The Many Visions of Jane Austen’s Emma

SPOILER ALERT: I don’t wish to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the latest film version of Emma but I discuss it in some detail below, so if you haven’t seen it yet but plan to watch it, please look away now!

We have been eagerly awaiting it since the last trailer made it to YouTube. Emma., with a full stop, is finally here. The bottom line: the visuals are stunning and I enjoyed it, even though I found it lacking in bits. It also got me thinking about the different Emma adaptations that have graced our screens in the last quarter of a century.

Emma: Handsome, Clever, Rich

Gwyneth Paltrow was my first Emma. I saw the 1996 film adaptation before I read the novel, so for years, Paltrow’s portrayal had a substantial impact on how I saw Austen’s character. However, I revisited the film recently, and it didn’t live up to my memories. Paltrow looks the part, but her acting is a bit off. It’s almost as if she was detached from everything happening around her.

Romola Garai in the 2009 BBC mini-series is quite the opposite. This is a much less restrained Emma, a girl full of passion and not beneath the odd tantrum. I did not like Garai in the first episodes; I found her too unladylike, with all that huffing and puffing. However, she does improve in later episodes, and towards the end, I thought she was quite good.

In the new Emma., Anna Taylor-Joy manages to make Emma very likeable despite her flaws, and therein lies my problem: Austen never intended for Emma to be that lovable. “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” she famously said, but Taylor-Joy’s big brown eyes make us root for her a bit too much.

The Best Friend

Even before they become friends, Emma knows Harriett Smith “very well by sight”, and that she is interested in her “on account of her beauty”. Jane Austen further gives us a detailed physical description of Harriet, something rare in her work, and it’s worth transcribing it in full:

She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of the sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness (…).

Emma, Chapter III

Given this description, why casting directors insist on selecting actresses that don’t fit Austen’s characterisation is a mystery to me. They are never as pretty as Emma (who is merely “handsome”), and as a result, the dynamics of the relationship are entirely skewed. Why would Emma want to become best friends with a rather dim and pliable girl with no family connections, if it wasn’t because she is truly a beauty to behold?

Another point of contention for me is that the actresses who play Harriet are always far too tall (just as Georgiana Darcy is typically played by actresses who are too short). My perfect Harriet would be petite and very pretty, like a live doll that Emma is drawn to play with. However, Gemma Whelan (the latest Harriett) is 5′ 6″, as is Louise Dylan (of the 2009 mini-series). Whelan at least is a blonde. Toni Collette is a terrific actress but, at 5′ 8″ and with her hair dyed red, she is miscast, to say the least.

The Hero

The actors playing Mr Knightley have a tough job. The character walks a fine line, and bringing to the screen the journey from family friend to romantic interest is undoubtedly a challenge. In general, I can only praise the gentlemen who have played him. Johnny Lee Miller, in particular, gets the look just right, although I can’t help but see Edmund Bertram at times in his portrayal.

I always imagined Mr Knightley as dark-haired, but I won’t hold this against Johnny Flynn, who is otherwise a very good actor. My problem with his casting doesn’t lie with his youthful looks for his age, but rather with his evident sex-appeal. When he appeared on screen for the first time, at least half of the audience in the cinema audibly gasped. It’s hard to undergo a believable evolution from uncle figure to dashing lover in that situation.

There is also the issue of the portrayal of the relationship between Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley. In Emma., the supposed friendship between Mr Knightley and Emma’s father is not really shown on screen. As a result, it looks like they don’t have much in common, other than their joint affection for Emma. I realise there are necessary edits to be made in feature films, but this is no excuse: the 1996 version manages much better to create the illusion of closeness between both men.

The Other Men

Mr Elton, in Austen’s words, “was reckoned very handsome”, to the point of Mr Woodhouse calling him “a very pretty young man”. Josh O’Connor isn’t quite right in the 2020 version, and it doesn’t help that he plays Mr Elton as a pseudo-Mr Collins. In comparison, Blake Ritson in the 2009 mini-series is excellent. As well as good-looking, Ritson’s portrayal of the character’s self-interest, vanity and superficiality is spot on.

As to Frank Churchill, I’m afraid the film versions don’t do the character justice. I am a huge Ewan McGregor fan, but that wig spoilt his performance in the 1996 adaptation. As to Rupert Evans (2009) and Callum Turner (2020), is it me or do they look like cousins? Evan’s slightly longer hair may explain a trip to London for its maintenance, but Turner’s buzz cut makes him sound shifty rather than vain. Also, I didn’t think Turner and Taylor-Joy had any chemistry, certainly not of the type presented in Austen’s novel.

The Rest of the Cast

In the 2020 adaptation, Miss Bates, one of my favourite Austen secondary characters, is played by Miranda Hart. Hart is a very well known comedian in the UK on account of the sitcom Miranda, which she co-writes and stars, and as a cast member in the series Call the Midwife. I am not a massive fan, but I think Hart makes a very believable Miss Bates. She brings the right mix of comedy and heartbreaking tragedy to every scene.

Ruper Graves and Gemma Wheelan are excellent as Mr Weston and Mrs Weston in this latest adaptation. They come across as a believable pair, and I love that he is played as a much more spirited man than in prior versions. The very talented Amber Anderson portrays Jane Fairfax very competently, like her predecessors in the role, and I loved the constant presence of servants in every scene. But I’m afraid I have to disagree with the portrait of John Knightley as a sort of Mr Palmer, uncomfortable in his role of parent and husband. And wouldn’t it be nice if the two Knightley brothers had looked remotely alike?

I have run out of space, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the different Emma adaptations! Which is your favourite? If you’ve seen the new film, did you enjoy it? Who do you believe makes the best Emma, Mr Knightley, Mr Woodhouse, Mr Weston, Mrs Weston, Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax?

12 Responses to The Many Visions of Jane Austen’s Emma

  1. I don’t have a favourite. I like different parts of different adaptations. In the Johnny Lee-Miller version I like seeing Mr. Knightley alone in Donwell Abbey, doing the estate accounts. I liked Mia Goth in the 2020 version but Harriet was a pretty little thing, more like Samantha Morton from 1996. When I saw the beginning of the trailer for the 2020 version I expected Johnny Flynn was going to be Frank Churchill but then realised that he was going to be Mr. Knightley. Well, Jane Austen didn’t say that he was dark-haired or that he wasn’t young-looking for his age. I too was disappointed with John and Isabella in this 2020 version. I couldn’t see a need for her to be Mrs. Battleaxe. She has been sweet in other versions, even if she was preoccupied with the health of the children!

    • Thanks for sharing the review, Lori. Some great points!

      The new Emma is certainly chocolate box pretty, whether that’s accurate or not is another matter. Harriet’s opulent room compared to her much more modest quarters in the 2009 adaptation comes to mind…

  2. I didn’t like the new Emma at all and certainly didn’t like the girl who played her. The relationship between herself and Mr Knightly was all wrong. Miranda Hart’s Miss Bates was the best character for me. I’m a fan of Hart anyway but I thought she played it as it should be. Every time Mr Elton was on the screen all I could think of was Uriah Heep from David Copperfield. Totally creepy!!
    The 1996 one is my favorite even though I can’t stand Gwyneth Paltrow. It was more true to the book I think.
    Enjoyable post.

    • I agree, the relationship between the leads was not quite right. I realise there is a trend to make Austen’s stories sexier, but most of the things they come up with just make me think they haven’t done their homework. For example, the dancing without gloves (definitely a no-no at the time) was very sexy, but way too early in the story. As for Miranda Hart, she was brilliant. She’s become my favourite Miss Bates for sure. And your comment about Mr Elton made me laugh. Mrs Elton (Augusta) was quite good as well I thought.
      Thanks for your comments Teresa!

  3. I don’t think I will be watching this movie. The reviews have been up and down and I haven’t made up my mind. I have all the versions on DVD and I really liked Mark Strong and Kate Bechinsale. Mark Strong has always been a favorite of mine. It was so unfair to do two Emma movies in 1996. I enjoyed the kiss between Jeremy Northam and Gwyneth Paltrow. It was a most excellent ‘first’ kiss between characters. I hate seeing a lip lock when the poor girl had never even been touched before [skin-to-skin] by a man. Why would a director allow them to do a tonsil swab? Grrr! For some reason, I simply could not connect with the casting of Romola Garai in the 2009 movie with Jonny Miller. Something about that movie just didn’t jive with me. This was an amazing post. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see “the other 1996 Emma” it when it came out (Gwyneth took over!) but after your comment I will most definitely add it to my to-watch list. They are both very good actors. I also agree with you regarding kisses in Austen adaptations. As you say, skin-to-skin contact was incredibly rare (see my comment above about a gloveless dance that would have certainly never happened!) and that kind of tonsil swab (love the expression) wouldn’t have happened. And perhaps the 2009 Emma doesn’t quite gel for many because Edmund Bertram is in it?
      So glad you enjoyed the post, and if you do get around watching the new Emma (perhaps when it’s on TV), I would love to hear your views.

      • I came across the explanation for the gloveless dance in several of the interviews I recently watched about the 2020 Emma. Apparently, the etiquette consultant approved it since it was the first post-dinner dance, and Emma would have taken her gloves off for the meal. They knew they were pushing the boundaries when they did it, but really wanted that extra sizzle of skin-to-skin in the dance. The same was done in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice dance between Elizabeth and Darcy at the Netherfield Ball.

  4. Gwyneth Paltrow’s version is the first adaptation of Emma I saw and it remains my favorite. I also have a tender place in my heart for Clueless. Thanks for keeping the spoilers to a minimum; I have tickets to see the new Emma on Thursday evening and can’t wait!!

    • Clueless is brilliant! I didn’t actually know it was based on Austen’s Emma when I watched it for the first time, so imagine my surprise when I saw Paltrow’s version a year later… Enjoy the new Emma! It’s visually stunning (if perhaps not always historically accurate ;). I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Thanks for your comment!

  5. I have only seen the BBC version of Emma and it was pretty good. I can’t wait to see the movie if gets to one of our theaters. I hope it does.

    • I do hope you get to see it, Cindie. Period dramas (or in this case, comedy) are available on DVD, TV and subscription services, but nothing beats seeing them on the big screen! Thanks for your comment.

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