Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Somewhat varying in taste and deportment from the earlier version, A&E's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel about an agreeable matchmaker is somewhat more serious than its predecessor, which was meant to be a comedy. This adaptation bears some similarities in nature but begins with a different flavor. It is the dead of night under the brisk chill of a full winter moon when chicken thieves burst into the Woodhouse hen coop and make off with a number of chickens. The following morning Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and her father are warily setting off with her governess Miss Taylor for her wedding to Mr. Weston.
That evening as Emma recounts the values of the day and prides herself on having matched the pair up, family friend and relation Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong) drops in for a visit. He is sorely disappointed when Emma reveals that she intends to find one more perfect match -- for Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan), the local vicar. Fate and providence seem to be on her side, as Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton), a charming girl with inclinations toward modesty and good nature, comes into her circle of friends. Elton seems almost a willing partner to her schemes and Emma must drive a wedge between Harriet and her own suitor, a young farmer, in order to make the match work.
But alas, it is not meant to be... for Elton does not love Harriet but Emma herself! And the young heiress must tend to Harriet's broken heart and find yet another man for her friend of good taste. In the meantime, her own attentions are divided between Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams), an unfavorable young woman seeking employment, and the sometimes rakish Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard), the son of Mr. Weston's first marriage. He seems fascinated by Emma and the two share many adventures together, not the least of which exchanging a private joke at Jane's expense. A&E's adaptation, as formerly noted, is somewhat less comical than its counterpart, in which Paltrow, Northam, and the scriptwriter attempted for a witty comedy. This is more of a serious film that follows the book closely in some aspects and does manage to get in a few laughs now and again. Everything considered, to fans of the novel this will be the film to please, but it is less vagarious, witty, and engaging than its counterpart.
Its singular highlight aside from the poignancy of staying to the true story lies in the character development. Harriet is not as silly, Frank is far more disagreeable, and Jane is truly present in the film whereas in the other she was merely a small part. The casting with the exception of Knightley and Emma themselves are preferable to the Hollywood version -- Harriet is more charming and of the age she would be expected to be; Mrs. Elton is far more brassy and rude on purpose; and Frank is both handsome and frightful. He's perfectly rakish, good looking, and yet likable despite his purposeful torment of poor Jane. A few instances make it more honest as well -- Frank's ability to drive gypsy children away with a riding crop makes more sense than adults gamely stepping aside when shouted at by Ewan McGregor's Frank Churchill..
Having seen the Paltrow version first, I've been somewhat soured to other adaptations, particularly in contrasting the male and female leads. Northam is more of a caring Knightley who seems to take pleasure in engaging Emma in wit more than purposely picking quibbles with her; but this seems to be the salt in Mark Strong's portrayal of everyone's favorite gentleman. Kate Beckinsale does fairly well as Emma but has not Paltrow's profound presence on screen. All in all it's a tossup of which the audience will prefer. Content-wise, both films are wholesome for family viewing, but this adaptation of Emma uses "Oh, Lord!" more often than its counterpart. The earlier Emma still remains the favorite of my own, but my mother much preferred this one. Both are well-worth a visit on a cold winter's eve.