Most Austen fans are fond of the matchmaking heroine Emma. Her story is full of wit, life lessons, and romance. Emma has been adapted for the large and small screen numerous times with many good adaptations. The ones chosen for this article to compare are the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremey Northam as well as the 2009 BBC miniseries starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. Both versions are charming, a visual feast for the eyes, and stay true to the heart of Austen’s novel.
I always felt this was the elegant version of Emma. The acting, sets, and costumes really take you into the society of the time period. Gwyneth is charming in her role as Emma and is just as meddlesome and vivacious as the character in the books. Northam makes a dry and upright Knightley who is absolutely lovable. There is also a great supporting cast that includes Alan Cumming and Toni Collette.
On a nostalgic note, this was the first version of Emma I ever viewed. Actually, it’s probably the first Austen drama I watched. It was this movie, in fact, that made me fall in love with the time period. I sympathized with Emma’s cluelessness towards her own feelings. Plus, Gwyneth Paltrow did a great job playing a British woman, and the dynamics between all the characters were great.
However, Emma and Knightley’s romance felt a bit stilted to me, upon watching the romance in later years. The actors are good apart, but I didn’t feel like swooning anymore over their romance. Not to mention, the story felt a bit rushed to fit into the allotted screen time. There wasn’t as much time for Emma and Mr. Churchill to play out their flirtation, either which is central to Emma figuring out her own heart. And not enough Jane Fairfax to get to know her. (On a side note, I feel like a novel should have been written about her.) Still, the film is excellent. It brings a cinematic brightness to Austen’s story. I love the costumes as well. Emma’s dresses made me want to own regency era gowns.
The 1996 version of Emma is delightful, just rushed a bit and had all the wit and humor found in Austen’s novel. It’s an Austen film class, very much like Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet’s Sense and Sensibility.
This is a more chapter by chapter adaptation of the book with more screentime devoted to the side stories with Jane and Harriet, for instance. The miniseries format made it possible with the pacing much less rushed. Overall, the 2009 version is really immersive. It’s easy to spend your whole afternoon watching the whole miniseries.
I love the cast as well. Not only the leads, but Jodhi May as Ann Taylor, Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, and Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton. The cast acted their parts amazingly. There wasn’t a boring character in the whole mix. And the leads brought Knightley and Emma to life.
Romola Garai played Emma’s clueless, happy go lucky, personality to the letter. Her maturation process was more pronounced in this version. I felt like Paltrow’s Emma was too mature in the beginning. Jonny Lee Miller was a bit young, at least in appearance, but he had Knightley’s censure and compassion perfectly. You could see the romance building between the two slowly. It made the love declaration more poignant. I mean, this line will always echo across Austen history:
“I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
Miller really delivers this line with hesitation and hope – he doesn’t know Emma will say she loves him back. Overall, I enjoyed this Knightley and Emma romance more. The miniseries paid special attention to detail on the costumes and set as well. It’s a stunning addition to the Jane Austen movie collection.
Despite my nostalgia, I must go with the 2009 version. I felt like it was better in so many ways. I really can watch it over and over again. From the acting to the faithfulness to the book, I feel like it excels over other versions. In all, I feel more emotionally invested and have great enjoyment as I watch the 2009 Emma adaptation.
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