s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Emma vs. Emma

Monday, August 16, 2010

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:

Harriet Smith

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.

Mr. Knightley

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.

Emma Woodhouse

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.


At August 16, 2010 9:00 PM, Blogger Petra said...

Or, as Cher from Clueless put it, "What would I bring to the relationship?"

At August 16, 2010 9:36 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Ha! Very true. Perhaps I should have rewatched Clueless, as well.

At August 17, 2010 1:18 PM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

You're not the only one to wonder about the relationship between Emma and Knightley. Of all the Austen relationships, it's definitely the oddest pairing. One of the quotes I found when writing a seminar paper about the novel:

"I am certain that he frequently lectured her, was jealous of every man to say a civil word to her, and evinced his intellectual superiority by such a plethora of eminently suitable conversations, as either speedily hurried her to an untimely grave, or induced her to run away with somebody of an inferior intellect, but... more endearing qualities." --Lord Brabourne, re: Knightley and Emma

Only a sample quote, but critics seemed universally to think Emma was the far more interesting character and Knightley the far more dull... I've never watched the Beckinsale, though. Now I want to, mostly because I've always thought that Churchhill and Knightley were both all facade in their own individual ways...

At August 17, 2010 1:20 PM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

Or, as a classmate, put it: "Knightley's the stock chivalric character. I mean, his name is KNIGHTley, for God's sake!"

At August 17, 2010 7:06 PM, Blogger Katya said...

"Of all the Austen relationships, it's definitely the oddest pairing."

Do you think it's weirder than Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood? Or do they get a pass because they're the beta couple in the book? (Plus Colonel Brandon doesn't spend the whole book lecturing Marianne, he just hangs around until she gets over Willoughby.)

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the Beckinsale Knightley.

At August 17, 2010 8:08 PM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

I'd actually give Colonel Brandon and Marianne Dashwood passes on two counts: the first, as you pegged, because they're the beta couple in the book. But I'd give them a second pass as well, because Marianne Dashwood has a way of letting herself be talked into and out of various relationships (primarily by Elinor, but also by herself, in my opinion).

As far as marriage in terms of brothers-and-sisters types of pairing, Col. Brandon and Marianne make much more sense too exactly because of what you said: he's not a lecturing, overbearing older brother. He's more a quiet, steady, entirely reliable presence.

At August 18, 2010 12:28 PM, Blogger Holly K said...

Now I also want to know how you would evaluate the new-ish BBC miniseries (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1366312/). But perhaps you are all Emma-ed out for now.

Also, I don't think of Brandon's love for Marianne completely unwarranted. Yes, she is kind of silly and young, but Brandon has lived a hard life full of heartbreak and disappointment. It does not surprise me that he would be attracted to a young and idealistic romantic like Marianne. Perhaps he is just reclaiming the life he could have had if things had originally gone his way.

At August 18, 2010 9:14 PM, Blogger Katya said...


Good point about Col. Brandon "reclaiming his life." Well put. And yes, I am rather Emma-ed out, at present, but maybe I'll get to the new miniseries, some day. :)

At August 23, 2010 12:43 AM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

So I just watched the Beckinsale, and I'd have to say that I find myself believeing that my perfect filmic version of Emma would have elements of the Paltrow and of the Beckinsale mixed together.

To wit, I prefer the Beckinsale portrayal of Emma... it's actually much more true to her character as described in the book. More than anything, Emma's faults lie in being wrapped up too much in her own mind and her own imagination (which is why I'm decidedly in favor of her flights of fancy). The only moment in the novel, really, where I have to admit that she's an overbearing snob, is when she's so mean to Miss Bates. (Interestingly enough, Miss Bates is more attuned to everything going on--including what's going on with Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill--than anybody else, but nobody else listens to her much because she prattles on so much... Erm, kind of like this comment. But not.)

And Katya, as for Knightley, I must admit that I prefer the Jeremy Northam portrayal from the Paltrow version on the whole. The Beckinsale Knightley was mannerly, sure, but even in his chastisement I found him far too bland for my tastes. Northam, I think, portrays the root of Knightley better, i.e. he speaks the truth to Emma. (In not-so-nice terms, he calls her on her crap. And he doesn't feel a need to do it kindly. After Jeremy Northam's "Badly done, Emma!" speech, it's easy to understand why Emma's getting a little teary-eyed. Not so much after Mark Strong's.)

At August 23, 2010 12:44 AM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

Oh, and because I forgot to mention it in the lengthy comment above, I very much agree with your assessment of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.

At August 23, 2010 2:59 PM, Blogger Katya said...

"After Jeremy Northam's "Badly done, Emma!" speech, it's easy to understand why Emma's getting a little teary-eyed. Not so much after Mark Strong's."

Agreed. This was one of the few scenes that I thought fell flat in the Beckinsale version. In the Paltrow version, the whole movie is basically building to this moment, which is why they spend so much time focusing on the relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley (but the time spent with them is to the detriment of the development of Jane Fairfax, and others).

At August 23, 2010 3:21 PM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

I'd actually keep the Churchill from the Beckinsale and match him with the Jane Fairfax from the Paltrow. In the book, Jane Fairfax is entirely inscrutable. Nobody (except, to an extent, Miss Bates) can read her. In the Beckinsale, I felt that Olivia Williams played her a little too transparently.

At August 23, 2010 4:03 PM, Blogger Katya said...

Huh. I suppose that contemporary readers would have grasped her social predicament (and how bad Frank Churchill's behavior really was) without needing it spelled out for them.

At August 23, 2010 4:17 PM, Blogger Confuzzled said...

Surprisingly, a number of people I know who've read the novel only understood the implication of Frank's behavior once it's revealed. And even then, they seemed better to understand the implications to Emma than they did to Jane Fairfax. (And I'm talking master's-level people, education-wise)

Logically speaking, it's easy to see that Jane would be more than a little irked at her intended's misbehavior. But textually speaking, there's never any evidence of Jane acting in any particular way... Partially, I suppose, because Austen tends to align her narrators more or less with her protagonists, which means we mostly see what Emma sees (or what Emma wants to see).

At September 11, 2010 8:36 PM, Anonymous Kari said...

I'll watch the Beckinsale version and see if I can identify that accent for you. I had no idea until I lived here how many variations of English accents there are! Great post!

At September 13, 2010 3:52 PM, Blogger Katya said...

That would be wonderful, Kari. Thanks!


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