Movie Review - Emma (A&E)

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Diarmuid Lawrence
A&E Television Networks

When you transfer the story contained in a full-length novel over to film, I think it’s understood that, unless you mean to air it on public television in half a dozen one-hour segments, you’re going to lose something. Maybe it’s not something important, and maybe it’s even something we’d all rather do without; still, you can’t flesh out every little subplot (or even every big one) in just a couple of hours. And some changes will be better received by some people than by others. I think it’s also understood that not every character can be acted or developed to the liking of every person who read the book first. Some versions simply have more appeal for some people than for others. So—what is it about this particular version of Emma that appeals so well to one group of people, and seems to still leave much to be desired for the other?

Well, some people like it because the characters are so lovable. Others dislike it because the characters are so unlovable. People like it because the subplots are so well developed, while other people dislike it because the subplots are so poorly developed. Some people like this version because Emma isn’t so selfish and manipulative; others dislike it because she is so terribly selfish and manipulative; while still others actually prefer the selfishness and manipulation they believe they find in this movie more than the others. Perhaps most importantly to hard-core Austenites, the Kate Beckinsale version has been deemed the most faithful to the essence of the book… by everyone who hasn’t in fact declared the Gwyneth Paltrow version to be the most faithful. Myself, I am not so particular about the last part of the debate, and so I won’t offer an opinion. If you want my opinion on the other parts, you’ll have to finish reading the review.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
At least the alcohol use can’t serve to tip the scale in favor of one Emma version over another. People drink wine and punch, and it is briefly (and not necessarily correctly) suggested that one character has taken too much.

Sexual Content:

Here is a category where a difference shows through. There are still a couple of them to be found, but there are definitely fewer revealing necklines in this version than in the others.
On the other hand, more is made of Harriet’s unknown parentage in this version than in the other feature-length version.
And, of course, there is kissing in all the versions, though a bit less in this one.

Ah, the language. Four “Lord”s, two “Good God”s, one solitary “God!”, and a “God knows” for good measure.


In all the Emma films, the worldview is going to be basically the same, because it’s basically the same story every time. Still, no harm in repeating myself.

Mr. Elton’s conduct is bad, especially considering his office as a pastor; and I think we’re meant to see that it’s worse for his position, but of course we ought to be careful not to let ourselves start viewing all pastors as scoundrels just because we judge an actor’s performance of Mr. Elton by how scoundrely he is (and it’s a fact that some people like him better in this version, while others like him better in another version). His avowed Emma-worship and his hypocritical references to God (contrasted with, say, Emma’s more irreverent uses of the word) might possibly add to a general reverence-is-hypocrisy message we tend to get from the media.

Emma is, I think, more down on matrimony in this version than in the other; at least where she is concerned. Of course it’s resolved at the end of the story, but sometimes younger children in the audience have a harder time discerning between which parts of a character’s thinking are good, and which parts need to be repented of for the story to end well.

The harvest feast scene at the end was added in—the scene where all the class barriers are erased. With elements like that, you just have to examine your own reaction to the scene to determine whether it’s communicating a faulty worldview. If you come away from it thinking that the “lower” classes, the less financially advantaged, are, by and large, more virtuous than the rich and prominent ones (and there is enough contrast between the good poor and the bad rich for that to be a possible reaction), probably you’d better consider the scene a piece of subversive Marxist propaganda, and avoid it. If you honestly come away from it thinking, “Well, it just goes to show you that you can find both good and bad people in any class,” I don’t think the scene’s going to be a problem.

Emma’s father is ridiculous, and, like Emma, much more down on marriage in this version, without, however, the change of heart at the end.

Now, for my own opinion of the movie. I’m on the side that liked the Gwyneth Paltrow version better. I thought, personally, that the pace wasn’t quite fluid enough, with a few of the scenes being too long for my preferences, while others were too short. Granted, the Kate Beckinsale version does credit to the subplot about Jane Fairfax’s secret admirer (a point which the fans of this version liked), but I thought it failed to sufficiently develop other parts of the story, such as Harriet’s affection for Mr. Elton, Mr. Elton’s affection for Emma, and even Emma’s affection for Mr. Knightley. It’s been just long enough since I read the book that I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the casting was better suited to Jane Austen’s characters or not, but if you’ll let me ignore that usually all-important question, I’ll venture a hint that the casting wasn’t quite so well suited to my taste in film. Emma’s fantasy sequences were not, perhaps, as good as they ought to have been; but if it’s a different kind of young lady you’re thinking of, with a different kind of fantasy, let me assure you that, of all the versions, this is the least likely to encourage daydreams of the perfect gentleman—and whether that’s a success in the scripting or a failure in the casting, I’ll leave to the reader to judge.

Not that any of us do, but young children especially do not need to be exposed to flippant uses of the Lord’s name; and, as I’ve said, Emma’s faults (as well as Mr. Elton’s and Mr. Knightley’s) may not automatically stand out as such to the younger girls in the audience. I don’t think there’s any one thing that couldn’t be handled by a mature eight year old, but the feel and flavor of the film somehow seem better suited to the ten-and-up range.

I happen to prefer the other version, but I can see other people finding this rendition of Emma quite enjoyable.

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