Sunday, 16 September 2012

Emma (Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow & Romola Garai versions)

As with my Jane Eyre adaptation review I thought I'd review most of the Emma adaptations that I've seen together. I've left out Clueless because it's a modern-day update and is only loosely based on Jane Austen's book. Emma is either my joint favourite Austen book (along with Pride and Prejudice) or my second favourite Austen book - but I wasn't that impressed with it when I first read it. I did find it funny of course but I found Emma herself annoying and I was a bit freaked out when Knightley told her that he'd been in love with her ever since she was 13 (shudders). But then I watched the Gwyneth Paltrow film and I really loved it so I went back to the book again. I enjoyed it so much more! I still find Emma's character annoying at the start of the book but she has good intentions, she's funny to read about, and I love how she matures as the book goes on. I also realised that Knightley wasn't being serious about falling in love with Emma at 13. Thank goodness! The period drama adaptations of Emma that I've seen and am going to review are: the 1996 ITV version which starred Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse, the 1996 Hollywood film which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, and the 2009 BBC adaptation which starred Romola Garai as Emma. I've reviewed them from least favourite to my most favourite (hmm, is that bad grammar?)

My least favourite period-drama adaptation of Emma is the ITV version, which was written by Andrew Davies and starred Kate Beckinsale as Emma and Mark Strong as Knightley. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Davies but I don't have any particular complaints with his script for this version. Apart from Knightley mentioning to Emma that he held her in his arms when she was a baby that is. Eeeewww! That's not romantic, that's disgusting! What was Davies thinking?! The main problem that I have with this version is due to the leading actors. I don't think Kate Beckinsale is bad in this. It's just that the way she plays Emma isn't particularly how I imagined the character when I read the book. She was too cold for my liking although it was nice to see a brunette Emma for once. Mark Strong on the other hand.... oh dear! He is bad in this! I'm not saying that Mark Strong is a bad actor. I like him. He was excellent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Young Victoria and made for a great villain in Stardust. But he's bad in this version because he doesn't seem to understand the character he's playing. He's far too shouty and his Knightley just comes across as being really angry and reproachful all the time! Where's the sense of humour?! I never once believed that Strong's Knightley loved Emma. And I think if I'd gone into this version without reading Austen's book beforehand I'd be wondering why on earth Emma puts up with him! Another thing that bothers me about this adaptation is that it isn't very visually appealing. There's a lack of colour and it has quite a dark and dreary look. The costumes aren't that nice either. This version isn't the worst Austen adaptation that I've ever seen and I know it has its fans but I personally found it quite boring. I gave up on it halfway through and I wouldn't recommend it. 2/5

Kate Beckinsale as Emma and Mark Strong as Angry Knightley
Fortunately, however, the other period drama adaptations of Emma that I've seen are much better. For this reason I think Emma has fared better than Austen's other books in terms of their adaptations. The first adaptation of Emma that I love is the Hollywood film which came out in the same year as the ITV version. It was written and directed by Douglas McGrath and starred Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma and Jeremy Northam as Knightley. It's a great film and really helped me to enjoy Austen's book more! Even though it's a Hollywood movie it's historically accurate and the locations, costumes and cinematography are all very visually appealing. Being a two-hour film adaptation it does of course leave out some scenes from the book and I do wish that they'd spent some more time on the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax subplot in particular. The film doesn't feel rushed though and it doesn't leave out anything major. The focus of the film is very much on Emma and Knightley's characters, which is as it should be even if it's sometimes at the expense of the other characters. As for the acting, Gwyneth Paltrow gives a brilliant performance as Emma Woodhouse. As we all know she can do a brilliant English accent. Her Emma isn't as lively as Garai's but she comes across as being very refined and elegant and sophisticated. I didn't really like Paltrow's hair-styles in this version though. Her hair is always very tightly pulled-back. It isn't flattering and looks uncomfortable. I wasn't that keen on the scene where Paltrow's Emma insults Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic either. She insults Miss Bates with a hint of malice. When Romola Garai's Emma insults Miss Bates it just seems like genuine lack-of-tact which is how I interpreted the insult in the book. I still really love Paltrow's take on the character though and she brings a lot of warmth and charm to the role. I really love Jeremy Northam as Knightley in this film. Although it's very obvious right from the start that he's in love with Emma he still does a great job. He's dashing, attractive, charming, sensible and is very refined and elegant himself. Even his dancing is excellent! He and Paltrow have very nice chemistry too. Alan Cumming and Juliet Stevenson are both good fun as the Eltons and Ewan McGregor is my favourite actor to have played Frank Churchill, probably because this version portrays his character in a more sympathetic light than the others. It's a shame that he has a silly wig though. McGregor was bald at the time he filmed Emma because of shaving his head for Trainspotting - couldn't they have found him a better wig?! But McGregor is very charming in this film and the duet between him and Paltrow is a definite highlight since he has a great singing voice.

The only actor who really lets the side down for me is Toni Collette. I really didn't care for her Harriet Smith at all! Harriet is supposed to be 17 and slim. Why cast someone who's in their 20s and even make them put on weight? I'm really not keen on Collette's acting in the role either. I'm not saying that Toni Collette is a bad actress. It's just that I don't like the way she played Harriet's character. Harriet isn't the brightest girl in the world but I think Austen intended for her readers to find her endearingly sweet and simple. Collette interprets the character as being a stupid, annoying bimbo! Even her voice is annoying in this film! I still really love this adaptation of Emma though. It's true to the tone and the spirit of Austen's book and overall it's an excellent film even though it's no longer my favourite adaptation of the book. 4.5/5

Jeremy Northam as Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

My favourite Emma adaptation is the most recent BBC version which came out in 2009. It was written by Sandy Welch and starred Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse and Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley. Initially I was annoyed when I heard that the BBC were going to tackle Emma because I do really love the Paltrow version and I didn't really see the need for another adaptation - but when I finally saw it I was completely won over. Welch's adaptation of North and South is brilliant but I was really disappointed with her attempt at Jane Eyre. With Emma Welch is back on form and I think this version does the best job at getting the light, fresh, fun, romantic tone of the book across. The production values for this version are clearly very high and it looks great. The cinematography, locations and costumes are all beautiful. I especially loved the location they used for Hartfield - and I really wanted some of Emma's dresses in this version! Also, the four hour running time allows them to flesh out the secondary characters more. It covers Austen's book in more depth than the Paltrow version does, especially when it comes to the Harriet Smith/Robert Martin and Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill subplots. We see much more of John and Isabella Knightley in this version as well.

As I've mentioned the role of Emma is played by Romola Garai. She's beautiful and I admit to having a bit of a girl crush on her. She's also a very talented actress and has been in many period dramas. Now I know people go on about Kate Winslet starring in loads of period dramas throughout her career but surely she can't compete with Romola Garai's record?! Garai has been in Emma, Daniel Deronda, Nicholas Nickleby, I Capture the Castle, Vanity Fair, As You Like It, Amazing Grace, Atonement, Glorious 39, The Hour and The Crimson Petal and White! All period dramas! The only contemporary film I've seen her in is One Day. Another interesting fact about Garai is that she was 27 when she played Emma Woodhouse. She was older than Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow were when they played the character but in fact she looks much younger than both of them! As for her acting I did find her mannerisms and exasperated facial expressions a bit too over-the-top in Episode One, but after that she tones down and ends up delivering a brilliant performance. She portrays all of Emma's qualities and characteristics extremely well, she and Jonny Lee Miller have great chemistry, and I thought she was really funny.

Jonny Lee Miller makes for a brilliant Knightley in this version as well. I know that some Austen fans were concerned that he was too young when his casting was announced which is actually quite funny. Firstly, because Miller was in fact the same age as Austen's Knightley (37) at the time Emma was filmed. Secondly, because both Mark Strong and Jeremy Northam were actually a few years younger than Miller when they both played Knightley. I myself was a bit peeved by Miller's casting simply because I'd never found him all that attractive before. But I was completely won over by Miller in this mini-series. He is attractive, he's strong, he's sensible, he's charming but still slightly distant. It was really nice to see him in a much better Austen adaptation than the Rozema Mansfield Park film too!

Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley
The supporting cast in this version is, overall, the best of these three Emma adaptations. I was really surprised at how much I liked Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse for example because I hated him as Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. It was just so obvious that he hadn't bothered to read the books! He did far too much shouting and gave off too much intensity. I still shudder when I remember the horrifying moment in Goblet of Fire when HE SHOVED HARRY AGAINST A WALL! It was a moment that was so out-of-character it made me want to die! Richard Harris did a much better job at playing the same character. Michael Gambon is really good in Emma though. He's funny and sympathetic and clearly understands Mr Woodhouse's character. Tamsin Greig is superb as Miss Bates. She's annoying at times but she still manages to be funny and sympathetic. She provides some really poignant moments. Louise Dylan is really well cast as Harriet Smith too. She's pretty but not prettier than Garai and her Harriet doesn't come across as stupid and annoying at all. She's sweet, ditsy, cute and adorable. I loved Blake Ritson and Christina Cole as Mr and Mrs Elton too. They were hilarious! Ritson is pompous, vain, funny and was so obviously having a lot of fun playing the character. Like Jonny Lee Miller he's better in Emma than he was at playing Edmund Bertram in his Mansfield Park adaptation. Christina Cole is great as Mrs Elton. She also played Blanche Ingram in the BBC's most recent Jane Eyre adaptation and clearly has a knack for playing Rich Bitch characters. Also, I loved Robert Bathurst and Jodhi May as the Westons and Dan Fredenburgh as John Knightley. I really liked how Knightley's brother got more screen-time in this version than Paltrow film. I think he's one of the most underrated Austen characters.

Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse

Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates
Louise Dylan as Harriet Smith
Blake Ritson and Christina Cole as the Eltons
Jodhi May as Mrs Weston
Robert Bathurst as Mr Weston
Really, there isn't very much that I can fault with in this version! Well, it would have been nice if they'd included the scene where Harriet bumps into Robert Martin and his sister in Hartfield like the Paltrow version does. And I do have to admit that I didn't really like the opening prologue. I think Welch was trying to do something clever and different but it just seems cheesy and weird. We hear a narration from Knightley, which explains Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax's backstories much earlier than we get to find out about them in Austen's book. Also, Jane and Frank both leave their homes on the same day and are around the same age. If I recall correctly, Frank left his father at the age of two and Jane didn't leave the Bates's house until she was about nine. Also the age gap between Emma and her sister Isabella isn't as big in this version as it is in the book, and Emma genuinely believes that she's partly responsible for John and Isabella's characters getting together in the first place. The prologue is the only issue that I have with this version though and I think everything else is great. I know that some Austen fans have complained about the fact that Welch doesn't include all that much dialogue from Austen's book but did you know that Emma Thompson only included just six direct quotes from Austen's Sense and Sensibility in her film adaptation? And that's a brilliant and mostly faithful film that many Austen fans love. The added dialogue in this version of Emma is great in my opinion. I especially love Knightley's line about Elton: "That man is so full of himself I'm surprised he can stay on that horse!" I really love this version. 5/5

Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley

So to sum up: when it comes to Emma adaptations my favourite is the Garai version because I think it's the best overall. Garai and Miller are both excellent, and because of the four hour running time the secondary characters and plot-lines are all very well fleshed out. However, I do really love the Paltrow version. Paltrow and Northam are excellent too, and considering that it's a two hour film version it still does a wonderful job in getting the tone and spirit of Austen's book across. I'd definitely recommend owning both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Romola Garai versions. They can both be enjoyed on their own merits and they act as a complement to each other. I think both are must-sees for Austen fans and for period-drama fans.


Stephanie said...

I think it's a little poor to review something you haven't watched completely, ie the ITV 2006 TV adaptation. It was the first one I saw and I really enjoyed it; I definitely think Mark Strong improves in the second half. If you didn't think he was in love with Emma in the first half, that's because he hardly knows and shows it himself!
I do have to agree with you about Toni Colette though, eurgh is she annoying!

Indigo Montoya said...

Stephanie, I understand where you're coming from and usually I wouldn't review something before seeing it in its entirety. I'll take your word for it that Mark Strong improves in the second half but even so that wouldn't make up for his portrayal in the first half in my eyes. Yes, Knightley isn't supposed to know that he's in love with Emma at first but that's no excuse to play the character as intense and shouty as he did. Book Knightley is nothing like that. I really like Mark Strong but not as Knightley.
It's nice that we can both agree that Toni Colette was completely miscast as Harriet though : )

Hamlette said...

I've loved the Gwyneth Paltrow version for so long that I kind of don't want to see any other versions. BUT I keep reading really positive reviews of the Romola Garai version, so I have put it on my list of movies to get from the library just now, and I'll try to see it sometime soon.

But I have to say I disagree with you about Gwyneth's hair -- I love it, and wish so much I could get mine to stay put in such elegant buns!

Indigo Montoya said...

I can completely understand where you're coming from. Like you I was - and still am - very attached to the Gwyneth Paltrow version. But I do completely recommend the Romola Garai version because it really is excellent and I love it. And even if you still end up feeling that the GP version is the better of the two then I at least hope that you'll still enjoy the RG version.

Oh, I don't know if you're aware but there's a modern-day web series of 'Emma' that's due to come out this autumn (or the fall if you'd prefer!) It's called 'Emma Approved' and it's by the same people who made 'The Lizzie Bennet Diaries'. I don't know if you've heard of that?

Hamlette said...

I've heard of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and they're doing a version of Sanditon too, right? Haven't watched them, though, as I have just an hour or so in the evening to call my own, which is when I get to watch any movies or TV shows and work on my novel. But maybe one of these days, I'll have time!

Indigo Montoya said...

Yeah they did an adaptation of Sanditon but that was just a short series and nowhere near as good as the LBD. I adore the LBD. You should definitely give it a watch when you eventually find the free time. Even though it's a modern-day update the LBD is actually my favourite Pride and Prejudice adaptation! Oh, the heresy! : D

Hamlette said...

Heresy indeed! Oh, what would the members of the "P&P95 Forever Club" say? They might stone you!

Fortunately, I'm not a member, so I won't throw so much as a pebble at you. Instead, I will open-mindedly try to find time to watch the LBD one of these days :-)