Is Sunday night’s broadcast of the 1997 A&E version of Emma on Masterpiece Classic worth watching? Absolutely! Even those who liked Gwyneth Paltrow’s elegant interpretation of 20 year-old Miss Woodhouse as much as I did, will find Kate Beckinsale’s bossy Emma satisfying in a more down-to-earth way. When Kate made this film she had just completed her role as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, a surprise cinematic hit.
Miss Emma Woodhouse, 20-year-old self-satisfied spinster
Kate plays the part of an interfering, well-meaning young woman with youthful ease and assurance. In addition, this actress is truly British, and she moves, talks, and acts naturally through the English landscape. I am always delighted to see a British actress play a British character (My apologies to Gwyneth, Renee Zellweger, and Anne Hathaway). I know many will disagree with me, but at times Gwyneth reminded me too much of a beautiful high fashion model with her uber thin, attenuated figure and modern facial features. She was as lovely to view as an Ingres line drawing, but I could relate to Kate’s old-fashioned prettiness better.
As you can see from the photos below, Kate’s range as an actress, when compared to supporting actress Samantha Morton, is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, she possessed sufficient acting chops to tackle this challenging role.
In these images (from left to right, top to bottom), Kate as Emma expresses 1) interest in Harriet when speaking to Mrs.Goddard, 2) a mixture of hurt and anger when listening to a lecture by Mr. Knightley, 3) proud admiration in viewing Mr. Knightley’s house, 4) disbelief and tender joy when Mr. Knightley proposes to her, 5) horror to Mr. Elton’s proposal, 6) envy listening to Jane Fairfax’s superior performance at the piano, 7) dreaminess after she and Mr. Knightley have declared their love for each other, and 8. polite and covert interest in Jane Fairfax as Miss Bates extols Jane’s virtues.
I love this reaction shot of Kate (below), whose expressions conveyed several emotions at once. Here, Emma has walked into Mr. Knightley’s sitting room, where she encounters her father by a small fire. Her face captures the combination of love, patience, forbearance, and puzzlement that Emma must have felt toward her father, as he once again frets and worries over minor points of comfort.
Miss Harriet Smith, 17-year old natural daughter of a gentleman
Movie buffs require no introduction to Samantha Morton, an actress so talented that one’s eyes immediately turn to her when she enters a scene.
Samantha’s Harriet Smith is all about innocence, naiveté, and puppyish eagerness to please. Her will – weak and easily persuaded – is sweet and passive. Emma couldn’t have found a more tractable person for her next project in matchmaking. Samantha’s artless Harriet, however, does not come across as dumb, for she often, though softly, questions Emma, and one senses throughout the film that she is unwilling quite to let go of her dream of living in a pretty yellow cottage with her yeoman farmer, Mr. Martin, and his two friendly, well-educated sisters. In Samantha’s interpretation of Harriet, we finally see a young woman worthy of Emma’s attempts at improvement.
While Toni Collette is a fine actress, whose turn as Cole’s frantic mother in The Sixth Sense moved me to tears, her plump, dumbed down Harriet left me perplexed and wondering what the elegant Gwyneth/Emma ever saw in her.
Mr. Knightley, 37-year-old gentleman, owner of Donwell Abbey, and Emma’s brother-in-law
Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightley sets the movie’s serious tone. His hawk-like features are dark, almost sinister, and his lithe, athletic figure moves with animal grace. In fact, Mark’s Mr. Knightley is dangerously and forcefully handsome, but not in a classical sense. His interpretation of Emma’s friend and lover is more vigorous than Jeremy Northam’s. Under repeated viewing and scrutiny, Mark’s performance holds up well. His angry encounters with Emma are a perfect foil to the moments when he is caught off guard tenderly watching her or smiling at something she has done or said, and after he proposes to her.
The change in Mark’s Mr. Knightley is most evident at the Harvest Ball, where he cannot contain his love for Emma. Many critics thought that this particular Mr. Knightley was too forceful, however I found that once he expressed his feelings for Emma, the change in his demeanor contributed to a completely satisfying romantic ending. The wolf has been tamed, and while we suspect that this Mr. Knightley will always be an exacting and demanding lover (ooh la la!), we also know that he will cherish Emma forever.
Critics of this movie will say it is too dark in tone, that the light-hearted spirit of Jane’s comedic novel was better captured by the 1996 theatrical film. Frankly, I prefer this film’s meatier fare. While Emma’s generous spirit and sincere interest in her charity work are largely ignored in this film version (and emphasized in Gwyneth’s Emma), Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are allowed to play out their charade under everyone’s noses, Bernard Hepton as Mr. Woodhouse is given free reign to explore his character, and the backdrop of regency life and manners is filmed in minute detail.
One of the film’s most important characters is the village of Highbury (played by Laycock, a National Trust village in Wiltshire.) This village is peopled with gentry, artisans, craftsmen, servants, and laborours going about their business. As the protagonists move through this landscape, the evidence of regency life playing itself out fascinated me – from Emma’s courtesy visits to Miss Bates – to the ball at the Crown Inn – to the seating at table, with Emma in the position of hostess, and Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Weston at the head of the table with Mr. Woodhouse – to the footman holding the candelabra up to Harriet’s picture so that everyone could see it better – to the farmers and their families harvesting grain before The Harvest Ball.
I found Gwyneth’s world overly beautiful, refined, and Hollywood-sanitized, but Kate’s world showed some rough edges, most particularly when depicting exactly how much hard labor was involved in supporting the lavish lifestyle of the landed gentry. Who can forget the strawberry picking scene at Donwell Abbey where footmen dressed in livery (an extreme sign of wealth) stood by each guest, moving the kneeling cushions along the rows of strawberries; or the servants laboring to cart furniture, dishes, and food up Box Hill in order to provide a bucolic outing for the guests? Or Frank’s gift of the piano being hoisted up to the second floor of Mrs. and Miss Bates’s rooms, because the stairs were too steep, winding, and narrow?
These typical touches of an Andrew Davies script influenced my decision: I prefer this cinematic version of Emma. Oh, please do feel free to quibble. As I watch Gwyneth’s version of Emma again, my preference just might swing back to that movie. When it comes to all things Jane Austen, I am known to be fickle!
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