There have been so many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels that it can be a bit confusing knowing where to start if you want to watch one. This version of Emma is not the most well known, but I certainly think it’s worth a watch.
Kate Beckinsale plays Emma Woodhouse – a well meaning, but impetuous girl who likes to meddle in other people’s lives a little bit too much. She thinks she’s doing them a favour, but she is about to learn that sometimes it’s best to leave well alone. Her brother in law, George Knightley (the brother of Emma’s sister’s hsband) is fond of Emma but is exasperated when she interferes in the affairs of her young friend Harriet Smith, and disastrously tries to set Harriet up with the local minister, Mr Elton.
Emma looks like she may be in for a romance herself when the handsome Franklin Churchill shows up, but it may be that Churchill has his own secrets…and what is the secret that young Jane Fairfax, recently returned to Highbury, is hiding? Emma thinks she knows, but when the truth is revealed she might be in for a shock.
As far as adaptations go, this one is pretty faithful to the book. I thought Kate Beckinsale (almost unrecognisable from how she looks today after being ‘Hollywoodised’) played the part of Emma very well, and delivered the right amount of mischievousness and haughtiness (it should be remembered that Jane Austen thought that Emma was someone who no reader would like, but I feel that she was a bit harsh on the character). However, I did think that the character came across as slightly more ‘bitchy’ or cutting than the Emma Woodhouse of the novel (particularly in her scenes with Franklin). Mark Strong plays George Knightley – a character I adored when I read the book. Strong plays the part well, but I’m afraid that I was somewhat distracted by his awful hair style!! However, the best actors in the whole piece were Prunella Scales as Miss Bates – a character who could have been played purely for laughs, but who here is imbued with a sense of poignancy and wistfulness; and Samantha Morton, who played Harriet Smith to perfection and was exactly as I imagined Harriet would be when I read the book. Raymond Coulthard is also great as Franklin Churchill, with just the right amount of handsome arrogance and good humour.
The period is brought to life very well, and the fact that I knew the ending did not spoil my enjoyment of the film (in fact, it probably enhanced it). This film, made for ITV television, is not as famous as the version starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, but I think it’s well worth a look, especially for anybody who is a fan of the book.
Year of release: 1996
Director: Diarmuid Lawrence
Writers: Jane Austen (book), Andrew Davies
Main cast: Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Raymond Coulthard, Olivia Williams, Dominic Rowan, Prunella Scales