*. This made-for-TV version of Emma (it was first shown on ITV) came out the same year as the Gwyneth Paltrow adaptation and reviewers were inevitably forced into making comparisons. Many preferred this film, as I do, but for different reasons than I’d give.
*. It’s unfortunate, but the most obvious point of comparison is in judging Paltrow alongside Kate Beckinsale. I’d give Beckinsale the nod for being a little more natural, but I’m not a huge fan of either performance (I prefer Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, to be honest). What turns me in favour of this version is more the supporting cast and the quality of the adaptation by veteran page-to-screen man Andrew Davies.
*. Even though he’s cast against type, I think Mark Strong is great as Mr. Knightley. He has an edge to him, which adds something to his feelings for Emma. We have the sense that there’s more than just romance in the air. Olivia Williams is also very good as Jane Fairfax, in a part with few lines that has to be played almost entirely in looks and glances. And finally I’d take Samantha Morton over Toni Collette as Harriet, but here mainly because I didn’t think Collette fit the part at all.
*. The directorial decisions also work out for the best. I like the way Emma’s imaginings are dramatized. Her imagination or fancy is what gets Emma in so much trouble, so going this route puts them more directly in play. It also gives us more a sense of her inner life, and how it shapes the mistakes she makes.
*. I also like little touches such as the way, in her big social blunder at the picnic, we see Mr. Knightley staring daggers at Emma from behind Miss Bates in a two shot. That’s a lot better than cutting to him, as the Paltrow film does.
*. The film begins with some locals stealing from the Hartfield hen house, a minor incident that only appears at the end of the book (where it’s turkeys, actually). I think it odd that Davies (and director Diarmuid Lawrence) played the class card so early, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Throughout the movie there are little nods in this same direction — lots of doffing caps and tugging forelocks, not to mention the servants having to haul all that luggage up Box Hill — but these are no more intrusive than the similar notes struck in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. At some point anyone making a movie out of such material has to decide how they’re going to present the antique social order of centuries-old fiction. And this seems fair enough here, without getting too obtrusive.
*. Emma is the perfect romantic plot, and if there’s nothing in this production that jumps out at you I think it’s also fair to say that it doesn’t put a foot wrong. A professional, responsible adaptation that can certainly be enjoyed, but in the end I found it still left me wanting to go back to Austen.