Emma vs. Emma
I recently had the chance to see the 1996 BBC version of Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale. I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow version multiple times and I’m always interested in variations on a theme, so I thought it would be fun to compare the two. Since the Paltrow version is better known, I was surprised that I preferred the Beckinsale version in most areas. Here’s a rundown:
Toni Collette can do no wrong in my eyes, so it’s difficult to judge the two films without being overly biased towards her. However, I think that she does a better job of putting humor into the character of Harriet Smith, so I’m going to give the advantage to Paltrow, in this instance.
Mr. and Mrs. Elton
I’d say it’s a tossup between the two versions. I love Juliet Stevenson as an actress, but I like the actress in the Beckinsale version, as well. The Beckinsale version portrays the Eltons as fairly happy in their marriage, while the Paltrow version portrays Mr. Elton as being pretty much entirely submissive to Mrs. Elton. I suppose that Mr. Elton deserves to be miserable, but I didn’t really mind the Beckinsale portrayal, either. One thing that struck me was Mrs. Elton’s accent in the Beckinsale version. It was very odd and sounded almost American. I wish I knew more about British accents so I could actually place it, because I doubt that the BBC went out of their way to cast an American who couldn’t do a convincing British accent. Advantage: Neither.
Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill
I’m a fan of Polly Walker, but the Beckinsale version does a much better job of highlighting Jane Fairfax’s plight: She is an orphan, raised by another family (friends of her father) as a companion to their daughter, but the daughter is now grown and married, so Jane must make her way in the world as a governess, which basically means she has to leave behind everything and everyone she’s ever known, because working as a governess is a huge step down in society. (Except that wasn’t Miss Taylor / Mrs. Weston a governess? She seems to have turned out all right.) Anyway, the Beckinsale version really focuses on Jane Fairfax’s dire straits, whereas the Paltrow version glosses over her situation and makes it seem as if Jane’s biggest problem is that she has to put up with Mrs. Elton’s wanting to “adopt” her as a project. Advantage: Beckinsale.
Ewan McGregor is a great casting choice for this role, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. In the Beckinsale version, there is a bigger focus on how duplicitous and self-centered Frank Churchill’s behavior really is. (This also works well with the bigger focus on Jane Fairfax’s situation, since it highlights how much Frank is playing with her emotions, as much as with anyone else’s.) He shows a different face to everyone and toys with others’ emotions just so that he can get what he wants. What he wants is to be free to marry Jane Fairfax, which isn’t a bad thing, but his methods are reprehensible. Jane Austen almost always includes this sort of “charming but evil” character in her novels (think George Wickham, William Elliot, or John Willoughby) and Frank Churchill is probably the best of this bunch, but he’s still not a good man. Advantage: Beckinsale.
Mark Strong doesn’t often play leading men. He doesn’t quite have the Hollywood good looks for it, so he’s more often cast as villains. However, I think his “Hollywood homely” (i.e., only unattractive by Hollywood standards) looks actually work well for this role. In the Beckinsale version, Mr. Knightley is portrayed as someone who is all good character and almost no polish. He walks around Highbury and his estate instead of going by carriage, he gives all his eggs to the poor and is left with none for his own breakfast, and he speaks his mind with no regard for maintaining a polite social façade. This puts him sharply in contrast with Frank Churchill, who is all façade. Frank is charismatic enough to charm almost everyone he meets, while Mr. Knightley’s good qualities can be overlooked by people who are only interested in the superficial. Plus, Mrs. Elton’s comment about being surprised that Mr. Knightley is so gentlemanly makes more sense if he’s portrayed as actually being a little rough around the edges.
Jeremy Northam is very attractive and his Mr. Knightley is equally so, but his Mr. Knightley seems like a Beautiful Person™ who is destined to marry an equally Beautiful Person™, instead of a good man who would only be appreciated by a good woman. Advantage: Beckinsale.
As a person, Emma is only bearable if she comes off as simply very young. She has a great amount of power because of her position in society, and the whole story of Emma is about her learning not to abuse that power. Kate Beckinsale does a great job of portraying Emma as young and excited and impulsive, but not malicious. (The dream sequences are also a great way of visually portraying Emma’s imagination getting carried away.)
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma, on the other hand, seems self-centered and duplicitous, like someone who should know better than to behave so badly, but can’t be bothered to care about anyone but herself. Advantage: Beckinsale.
So, although I like many of the actors in the Paltrow version, I vastly prefer the writing and direction in the latter. (Plus, I prefer the two leading actors in the Beckinsale version, which makes a big difference.)
Of course, the biggest problem with Emma is the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley. Emma has a significant growth arc over the course of the story: She starts out young, meddlesome, and self-absorbed and she learns that social position is not the same as maturity and wisdom. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, begins the story by being mature and wise and right about everything all the time, and ends it pretty much the same way. The upshot of this is that we understand what Emma sees in him—he’s the voice of reason who steadies her when she’s being too impulsive—but we have no idea what Mr. Knightley sees in her. He doesn’t appear to have any equivalent faults in his character for her to shore up and there is no evidence that he particularly wants to be around someone like her. In short, he doesn’t seem to have an “Emma-shaped hole” in his life.
Her main attractions, then, are that she is (1) pretty and (2) finally old enough to be suitable wife material. I suppose Mr. Knightley could also be attracted by the idea of having someone around to correct and be superior to all the time, but that hardly seems like a recipe for an equal marriage. (Incidentally, the relationship between Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon suffers from the same fundamental inequality.)
Compare that with Mr. Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennet: “By you I was properly humbled.” Like Emma, Elizabeth has to learn to look past surface charm to see the true worth of a man, but, unlike Emma, she clearly offers something back, in the form of taking the overly proud Mr. Darcy down a peg or two. (It’s my opinion that the strength of this relationship is a big factor in making Pride and Prejudice the most popular Jane Austen novel.)
So, I liked the Paltrow Emma when it came out, and I liked the Beckinsale Emma when I finally got around to seeing it, but, oddly enough, seeing both in quick succession has left me deeply unsatisfied with the basic premise of the story.