It’s true. I have been in love with Mr. Knightley since I met him in college. It has been a long unrequited passion–primarily because he is a fictional character. Although he can not return my adoration, I avidly watch every movie version of Emma, and regularly reread the book. When I heard PBS was running a new Emma I was a twitter for weeks.
When I was much younger, Persuasion was my favorite work by Austen, but over time I have come to prefer Emma. Anne Elliott’s patience, once admired, now frustrates me. Emma makes so many mistakes, but at least she keeps trying. And I see more of myself in the headstrong and deluded Emma than I ever will in the forbearing and subservient Anne.
In the excitement of a new Emma, I glutted myself on the book, and every movie version I could get my hands on. I am now ready to give you the benefit of my opinions–based on happy hours spent comparing the movie versions. Although I admit my opinion basically boils down to how well I feel they handled all-important Emma/Mr. Knightley proposal scene.
1972 BBC Production Starring Doran Godwin and John Carson.
Dear me, were marabou boas much used as dress trims and stoles in the 1810’s? If so, several of these outfits are vindicated, but I still don’t like the pepto-bismol pink cloak Emma wears. The main actors give fine performances, although Emma is not quite as sympathetic as I would like and Mr. Knightley a tad too stuffy At 270 minutes it is certainly full of details, but, alas, it has the odd overly staged feeling of older BBC productions. Only for diehards.
1996 Miramax Production Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam
Gwyneth Paltrow is a sprightly and sophisticated Emma. And Jeremy Northam is a lovely Mr. Knightley, although he has a somehow slightly too knowing and sensual look about him. It is worth watching this over again just for the costumes, the hairdressing and the fabulous sets. I adore Emma’s tent in the garden–I so want to be Emma, sitting there in the golden sunshine. Unfortunately, I think the script has a tendency to dumb down the story so that any poor rube buying a ticket to a Gwyneth Paltrow film and discovering they were in the midst of a costume drama could un-der-stand what was happ-en-ing. And, yes, they messed about way too much with the proposal scene for my purist tastes.
1996 A&E Production Starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong
A very solid work. Kate Beckinsale is an entrancing Emma, but as I sit here, trying to describe it, I find I have very little to say. The script is good, costumes good, it’s all good, but perhaps not adventurous enough…
2009 BBC/PBS Production Starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller
Which all leads me to the newest version–and my current favorite. The costumes, the settings, all wonderful. But it is the fine script, direction and acting which combine to give the characters new depth. Miss Bates is indeed a chatty annoyance, but you can see the sad life behind her chatter. Mr. Woodhouse is still a tiresome old man, but his fear and love for Emma and those around him make him not just bearable, but understandable.
Mr. Knightley is so calm and kind—really, I think I am just a little bit more in love with him than ever. He chastises Emma, but you can see he does it out of worry for her–and because he is frightened of losing her. Emma is a girl who is both spoiled and constrained by her enclosed environment. Because of this she acts with the thoughtlessness of a young girl, but her own love for those around her carries her through.
And the proposal scene. Well done, I say, well done! I must confess that I sometimes believe that Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy do not end up having a happy marriage, but I never feel this way about Emma and her Mr. Knightley. In this version, when Mr. Knightley says, “But you know what I am.” Emma nods. She does know. As deluded as she has been about so much, she understands exactly what kind of man she is marrying. As for Mr. Knightley, he sees Emma just as clearly, but finds her “faultless in spite of all her faults.”
This story, written nearly 200 years ago, still has the power to charm me. The hours of entertainment—even joy—the book and the film interpretations have brought me over the years is astounding. And I believe it is this very enjoyment of novels which has led me to write. Not that I believe I will ever exert any of the true grace and power of a Jane Austen; but if anything I write provides anyone with one zillionth of what Emma has given me, I would consider myself lucky.