It can be kind of confusing since there were two versions of Emma released in 1996. This review is on the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow. This was one of the first Jane Austen adaptations I saw, after only the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (and the end of the 1940 P&P if that counts). I believe I saw it in either 2002 or 2003, after just happening to find it on some movie channel. It happened to be very shortly after I read the book as well- the same thing that happened with P&P!
This is definitely the chocolate-box version of Emma. It focuses on all the comedic, light-hearted elements of the story over everything else. Quite a bit had to be cut for time, and the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax story suffered the most, I think. Still, most of the cast was good (with some exceptions!) and it’s a fun romantic comedy…even if it’s not the best adaptation.
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse
I’ve always liked Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. I’m no expert, but I think she does a good, believable British accent. I like how she was able to show Emma’s immaturity and yet still always be lady-like in her speech and mannerisms. In fact, Gwyneth is still probably my favorite in the role. One scene I didn’t really like was her whining to Mrs. Weston at the end about how she loves Mr. Knightley and shouting out “I love John!” and “I hate John!” depending on what she thought he would tell his brother to do. I thought that was a bit over the top. I also didn’t like the styling for her hair- it was always so tightly pulled back. It didn’t look flattering and was probably very uncomfortable. I also wasn’t fond of the Box Hill scene where she insults Miss Bates- the way they played it, Emma seemed to be deliberately malicious and thought out what she was going to say. Badly done!
Jeremy Northam as George Knightley
He was definitely very handsome and attractive in the role…unfortunately a bit too “suave” for me though. I mean, come on. Mr. Knightley is not supposed to be the obvious hero of the story. But did anyone take one look at Jeremy Northam and NOT think he would end up with Emma? Especially since Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill weren’t particularly handsome in this version, there was really no question! Aside from that, I thought he had good chemistry with Emma and was really good telling her off after Box Hill. But his attraction to her was also very obvious from the beginning and I just wish it was a little more subtle.
Toni Collette as Harriet Smith
This was one of the cringe-worthy casting choices for me. What were they thinking? Harriet Smith is supposed to be a pretty little seventeen-year old girl. Why would they cast someone in their 20s and even make her gain weight? I know it was considered attractive to be plump, but I just thought it made her look older than Emma and so she ended up seeming more like a borderline retarded older woman following a younger girl around. I thought it was beyond ridiculous and just not believable.
Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson as Mrs. and Miss Bates
I thought it was cute that they were played by a real life mother and daughter. Miss Bates was hilarious in this one and Mrs. Bates was also pretty funny even with no lines. You could tell that she was exasperated and yet resigned to her daughter’s ways- she could never get a word in and seemed to have just given up. One scene I thought was weird is that after Box Hill, when Emma came to visit, it was Miss Bates going to hide in the bedroom and she wouldn’t talk to Emma at all.
Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill
Yeah…I don’t know what they were thinking with this one. Maybe he could have done the role justice with better direction and more screen-time…but I don’t know. I think one thing they could have done that would be a major improvement was given him a better wig. Apparently he had a shaved head for another role, but the one they put him in was just hideous. There’s no way anyone would mistake him for a romantic lead. He wasn’t really a cad or a villain in this one. His storyline was unfortunately very truncated and while he flirts with Emma a little bit, he never purposely seems to play with Jane’s feelings and she doesn’t seem bothered by it.
Polly Walker as Jane Fairfax
I don’t know what they were thinking with this casting choice either! It was ridiculous to hear the characters say how frail or delicate Jane was when she was so obviously robust and just the picture of health! She didn’t really do anything either.
Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton
He’s not how I pictured Mr. Elton in terms of looks, but he was funny in the role. He was pretty different from the book Elton- pretty dopey and almost seemed to really love Emma. In the books he was full of himself and just wanted Emma for her money.
Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton
Not who I would have chosen, but she was excellent! She was perfectly annoying and snobbish and just a hoot.
Everybody else that I remember was fine. Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Weston’s parts were pretty small. Greta Scacchi was good as Mrs. Weston and seemed very motherly to Emma indeed. John and Isabella were in it for about a split second, I think!
This was a fun movie, but not quite Jane Austen’s Emma. The Mr. Elton story was given a lot more focus over the Frank Churchill one. I think if I could change just one thing, I’d play up the Frank/Jane story more. Oh, and get rid of the ugly wig as well.
My Rating: 8/10