The same year Gwyneth Paltrow was tricking us all with her fake English accent in Emma, the wonderful people who make British television tapped Andrew Davies to adapt the novel for TV and put Kate Beckinsale in the title role. Although it’s made for the small screen this Emma is a feature-length production, not a multi-hour miniseries like the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice. But never fear, the BBC has a new miniseries-length Emma — it premieres tonight in the U.S. on PBS! It’s like Christmas all over again here at Petticoat Junction.
While it might not be fair to review a movie by comparing it to another…too bad. Comparisons between the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma and the Kate Beckinsale Emma are inevitable.
One of the critical differences between the two films is the Mr. Knightley- Emma connection, which we alluded to in our review of the Gwyneth Paltrow film. In the British film Mr. Knightley feels much older than Emma — his treatment of her is more stiff, and his condemnation of her behavior is much more severe. There’s less friendly, playful banter between the two. He’s a stern creature in general — almost brooding. He has quite the angry temper, too. When he hears Frank Churchill is going to ride all the way to London just for a haircut he looks like he’s going to punch a hole through the wall.
So who’s the better Mr. Knightley? Jeremy Northam, the friendly, gentle critic, or Mark Strong, the stern, stiff moralist with the furrowed brow?
Northam is more pleasant to be around and shows more vulnerability, but there’s a depth of passion in Strong’s portrayal that I like. When he confesses his love to Emma at the end, it feels sincere. Not that Northam’s proposal was insincere, but Strong is so grave and stiff throughout the rest of the film that his leaves a deeper impression. When he uses words from the book — “I cannot make speeches; if I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more” — the viewer gets a sense of the passion simmering below his surface.
On the other hand, during the climactic proposal scene he also remarks “I held you in my arms when you were three weeks old.” Um, creepy. Why wreck the mood with such a statement? It’s like he was watching her grow up and now she’s “ready” for him. Gross.
Meanwhile, Emma is more scheming; she has a bit of a darker glint in her eye. Kate Beckinsale conveys a certain haughtiness and meanness of spirit that Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t have, which I think is in keeping with the book. She and Mr. Knightley’s fights are more violent, with her yelling and afterwards angrily grumbling that Mr. Knightley “will be sorry.” There’s also more of a change in Emma’s behavior over the course of this film, and class conflicts are more apparent. Since she starts out snottier, it means more when she approaches Harriet and Mr. Martin at the end, asking them to visit her at Hartfield (whereas before she had noted the Martins were far too beneath her to merit her notice.) And while we’re on the subject of class, the film emphasizes that is Mr. Knightley is the owner and lord of an estate. We see scenes of him supervising workers harvesting wheat and presiding over a banquet party for his tennants at the end.
The costumes in this Emma are certainly the equal of the other film, and are perhaps more faithful to the era. The hues are darker, with no bright pinks or aquamarines or yellows, just deep maroons, darker greys and blues, and creams. The film is overall darker in color, with little bright lighting — or maybe it’s just because I watched this on VHS and not DVD?
As for the supporting characters, Miss Bates in this version made me miss the other Miss Bates, with her hyperventilating laugh and breathless chatter. Mrs. Elton is just as haughty and ridiculously self-important, plus she comes up with some of the movie’s more humorous quotes like “I am a scourge of puppies, am I not, Mr. E?” Jane Fairfax is more fleshed out as a character in this film, and displays a wider range of emotions. She seems more genuinely uncomfortable in Highbury, fighting back tears and giving off hints, in her looks and glances, that Frank Churchill and she are more than just acquaintances. This makes her more a realistic character, and even though it does spoil the big secret of the story, it builds the audience’s sense that Emma really is in over her head with her matchmaking schemes. Plus there was something about the other Jane Fairfax I didn’t like — maybe it was her deep, throaty voice. Off-putting somehow.
So, all things considered, which of the two 1996 Emmas is the better film? We’re going to have to cop out and say that neither is better, precisely speaking — just different. The Gwyneth Paltrow version is a lighter, more humorous film, while the Kate Beckinsale version is a solid story about a misguided woman who learns the error of her ways. There’s no need to pick one version over the other; watch both and enjoy!