Miniseries Monday: Jane Austen’s Emma

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Welcome to the second Miniseries Monday! I’m Ellie, Haley is my best friend, and we love each other partly because of and through our mutual love of miniseries. And musicals. We also love musicals. We discussed it and decided that Miniseries Monday would be pretty loosely arranged. Last time we did a comparison between three versions of Jane Eyre. Two were feature films, and only one was a miniseries. This week we are going to do something similar, with the great Jane Austen classic, Emma. Haley will be adding her thoughts in here and there.

Emma may not be my favorite Jane Austin novel (it’s right in the middle of the pack for me) but it has had three really great reincarnations on the screen. (Disclaimer: there is a 240 minute version of Emma that came out in 1972 that I have not seen.)

Haley:  I love Austen’s Emma. Mr. Knightley is my absolute favorite Austen hero. He doesn’t save the heroine’s family from ruin like Mr. Darcy. He doesn’t do anything particularly big or grand. He’s just a wonderful, kind, and good man. He does what’s right over and over again each and every day. He always puts others before himself. And loving such a man transforms selfish Emma into a real woman. Great story. Great characters.

In 1996 there were two versions of Emma made. The more famous stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. The other was an A&E made-for-TV movie staring a 23 year old Kate Beckinsale and a 33 year old Mark Strong.

More recently, in 2009, the BBC released a wonderful 240 minute Emma starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller.

Lets talk about them!


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Kate Beckinsale: Honestly? I don’t remember anything about Kate as Emma. And I watched this movie pretty recently. Haley, you want to weigh in here?

Haley: I agree. I actually own this film and I’ve only watched it once. I generally like Kate Beckinsale and it’s not that she ruins the role, she’s just incredibly forgettable. 

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Gwyneth Paltrow: Gwyneth makes a good Emma for a feature film, where they have to shorten and chop up the story. Her Emma is simplified to a silly, self centered, rich girl. She’s pretty and simple and vain.

Haley: Definitely simplified. But I can’t help but like Gwyneth’s Emma. It might be partly due to shallow things like how wonderful her costumes and hair are. Gwyneth has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, though.

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Romola Garai: This is the first time I have actually liked Emma as a person and understood why someone as down-to-earth and wonderful as Mrs. Weston would love her so much and have such faith in her. Romola plays her so well, with a lot of true remorse for her silliness, and real caring for her family.

Mr. Knightleys:

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Mark Strong: I have a major Mark Strong aversion. I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with him, he just seems to be everywhere all the time, and I’m sick of him. And he has a snaggle-tooth. And I hate him.

 Haley: I didn’t like him in this role at all. But I think it’s because I usually see him playing villains (for example, in Stardust and the new Sherlock Holmes) and just couldn’t see him as Knightley. I kept worrying that he had some sinister plot brewing.

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Jeremy Northam: He is a wonderful Knightley, a classic English actor, who could play almost any Austen hero with aplomb. I think he is so handsome and I love him.

Haley: Agreed. He’s great. 

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Jonny Lee Miller: Has been one of my favorite actors since Hackers. To see him as Mr. Knightley made me a little sad, since it means that he’s getting old, but I think he plays the role so well.

 Haley: I LOVED him as Mr. Knightley! Although Northam is splendid, I have to say that Jonny Lee Miller is my favorite Knightley.

Major Downfalls:

A&E: This version is nothing special. It has a smaller budget than the Hollywood version (obvi), and other than Kate being better then Gwyneth, there isn’t any real reason to watch this one instead of the Hollywood one.

1996: I am not a huge Gwyneth fan, and as my husband pointed out, Ewan McGregor is more memorable as Frank Churchill than Jeremy Northam is as Knightley. It seems to miss the whole point of Emma. Gwyneth seems smug and bratty, rather than good intentioned although oblivious. She doesn’t seem truly contrite.

Haley: Yes. It’s an enjoyable feature film, but due to time constraints they have to simplify so much. There are some fantastic moments but you really miss out on any richness to Jane Fairfax’s character and Gwyneth as Emma (although lovely) doesn’t really capture her.

BBC: It is a little languid in its filming. Long, drawn out shots of English country-side. Which I love. So, no real complaints here.

Haley: Loved it, loved it, loved it.  My only complaint is that Laura Linney introduces this BBC Masterpiece Theatre version on the DVD I have and I’m annoyed every time that they didn’t get somebody British to introduce it. I don’t know why it bugs me so much. It’s not even part of the movie!


A&E: Kate Beckinsale is not Gwyneth Paltrow. Points to A&E.

1996: Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill. Especially when he sings. And that wonderful scene where Emma’s carriage is stuck in the water and Frank says, “Well, you’ll just have to live there, I suppose.” Hilarity.

Haley: Don’t forget his ridiculous hair! There are really so many great comedic moments in this film. Toni Colette is a hysterically funny Harriet Smith and Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton is amazing. And I love Miss Bates in this version. “PORK, mother!” The Box Hill scene when Emma insults Miss Bates is really well done. It’s so awkward and painful and Mr. Knightley’s attempt to console Miss Bates is so noble and kind. 

BBC: Romola Garai. Period. Jonny Lee Miller. Period. Also, that incredibly moving and gut-wrenching scene in the beginning where Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are sent away as children is beautiful. Baby Jane is the prettiest little girl.

Haley: Yes! I get teary-eyed at the beginning every single time. Great supporting cast, too. Michael Gambon is a such a lovable Mr. Woodhouse. I also find Jane Fairfax such an endearing character in this adaption. The banter between Emma and Knightley is wonderful and really helps their romance “make sense.” Like Ellie said, Romola Garai really does a great job of keeping Emma likable. I want to watch it right now.

In conclusion, the new BBC Emma is a wonderful adaptation of a story that really deserved a wonderful adaptation. I think it is great, with almost nothing wrong with it. If you have four hours to spare being delighted, I highly suggest this Emma.

What do you think? Have you seen a version of Emma that you really love? That you really despise? Give us your thoughts in the comments!

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  1. says

    I love the newest miniseries, especially the cast! Ramola Garai is wonderful, she really captured the annoying-ness of Emma. I also love anything with Michael Gambon! My favorite thing about the Gwenyth Paltrow version is Ewan McGregor as well. He is just fabulously silly as Frank Chruchill.

    • Haley says

      Yes to everything! I love Michael Gambon, too. I think the only thing that I’ve seen with him that I didn’t like was the new Brideshead film. But it wasn’t his fault. The screenplay was the worst thing ever.

  2. Lois says

    Nothing to add here. I also loved the new version, loved Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller. And 4 hrs (or 6!) is always better than 2 when it comes to Austen!

  3. says

    I haven’t seen the Beckinsale version yet. Totally agree on everything else, love, love, love the 2009 BBC one! We say “Badly done, badly done indeed.” to each other all the time and my 9 yo brother quotes “I believe it is time for tea and yet it has not appeared” quite often which is hilarious. You’re making me want to watch it now!

    • Haley says

      Haha! My 3-year-old hasn’t seen any of the adaptions but he loves to say, “PORK, mother!” from the 1996 Miramax version because it’s something my brother and I like to quote. I’m sure he doesn’t understand the reference but I guess it’s a funny thing to say regardless.

  4. Janice says

    The 1972 BBC version with Dorian Godwin is actually not terrible — in spite of low production values and an unconscionably elderly Mr. Knightly. A cast of journeymen British actors carry it all off nicely and Godwin doesn’t shy away from Emma’s essential sometimes unlikeable-ness. It makes her eventual remorse that much more moving.

    It’s far, far, FAR less romantic than subsequent versions but I find it rather more human. And Fiona Walker gives Juliet Stevens a serious run for her money as Mrs. Elton.

    • Haley says

      Well, I’ll have to check it out. I think it might be streaming on Netflix? Sounds like a good one to watch on laundry day 🙂

    • Haley says

      Probably because I called her Juliette Stevens in the post! I didn’t even get her FIRST name right. I’ll fix it in the original post. Thanks!

  5. says

    I love that BBC version! Its wonderful and I love Jonny Lee Miller…almost enough to try watching that ridiculous looking new Sherlock show he’s in. But we’ll see.

    The only thing I want to throw in is I truly believe that Toni Colette is the perfect Harriet. She added so much to that Emma and was the perfect foil to Gwyneth, while being hilarious and loveable. To me no other Harriet is at all memorable when it really is a great part for a good actress.

    • Haley says

      I agree, Christy. Toni Colette is by far the most memorable Harriett. “Mr. Elton has brown eyes, too!” Hilarious and loveable is the perfect description.

  6. says

    I am a huge fan of the Miramax ‘Emma.’ In disagreement with some of what was said here, I think that Austen’s Emma *is* rather smug and not simply oblivious. She is well aware of her talents, her beauty, her position in society… and although she’s generally good-hearted, certainly struggles with pride. I think that Paltrow captures those things well. You get the sense from her that she’s kinda a social bigshot and she knows it… and yet you don’t hate her and you can see why everyone finds her charming.

    Northam is awesome. I think Johnny Lee Miller is also great and his dialogue is more true to the book (Northam’s Knightley is romantic and effusive, which isn’t accurate – not that that stops us from swooning). My only complaint is that I seem to recall him being really harsh on Emma when he corrects her — doesn’t he yell?! I remember thinking, when I watched it, “No! Mr. Knightley is a true gentleman, and he would never just YELL at Emma like that!”

    Thanks for the post! Good fun.

    • Haley says

      I agree with what you said about Gwyneth as Emma. Emma is supposed to be smug and prideful. Your description is spot on. However, I think where Gwyneth loses me a bit is in making me believe that she is really contrite at the end and not just sorry because Mr. Knightley called her out. I think the length of the film doesn’t give her a lot of time to develop that, though.

      And yes. I don’t think Mr. Knightley would ever yell at a lady! (No matter how horrid her behavior was to dear Miss. Bates.)

  7. Debbi says

    I think we in the U.S. have seen enough Austen drama for a very long time to come. The books describe an age that was never as charming in real life. That said, Jonny Lee Miller was the best Knightley.

    Miller is a versatile actor who was pure evil in Dexter and is turning in an outstanding performance in the updated Sherlock Holmes. Far more complex than was the brotherly Mr. Knightley or attorney Eli Stone, and before his turn in Trainspotting as a student in an American high school, the new concept of a tormented Holmes would be a challenge for a lesser actor.

    People who do not watch the weekly tv series when it is available in all areas will be missing a demonstration of unsurpassed acting skill. Jonny Lee Miller has quietly won a large following of devoted fans. We tend to count him as one of our own.

    • Haley says

      I think Jonny Lee Miller is great! I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen of him.

      But I passionately disagree with your claim about Miss Austen’s tales (which are far more than charming). I don’t think we can ever have too much of stories about virtue, friendship, love, and the human soul 🙂 Austen’s novels do focus on characters from her own social class (as someone who did very little traveling and had a small social circle, it was what she knew best). If you’re interested in another author that dabbles more in social issues of a similar era, you might enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell’s books!

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