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Friday Film Review: Emma (A&E 1996)

Emma (1996 A&E TV)

Genre: Novel adaptation/Romance/Regency Period

Grade: B

I was reluctant to watch this adaptation mainly due to the fact that I’m not a great Kate Beckinsale fan. Something about her struck me as distant, controlling and snobby. But my curiosity overcame me and I finally took the plunge and realized that she’s actually a very good choice to play this character. I had always then meant to review it but misplaced my notes until recently. Of course right after I queued it up to rent a second time, I found them. Now having seen it again, I find I enjoyed it even more than the first time.

Young, unmarried Emma Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale) fancies herself a matchmaker after her former governess marries and becomes Mrs. Weston (Samantha Bond) though her father deplores anything that upsets his daily routine. Their neighbor Mr. George Knightley (Mark Strong) isn’t so sure of Emma’s talents and doesn’t hesitate to tell her so. But Emma is determined to match off another happy couple and decides on the vicar, Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan) as her next subject. Totally misreading his interests, she tries to fix an attachment between Elton and her new friend Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton), after having romantically detached Harriet from a young farmer tenant of Mr. Knightley’s named Robert Martin. Mr. Elton scorns illegitimate Harriet and chooses a bride (Lucy Robinson) more snobbish than he.

Meanwhile Mr Weston’s (James Hazeldine) son from his first marriage Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard) finally visits his father and new stepmother just as the Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) the niece of the come-down-in-the-world Miss Bates (Prunella Scales) arrives in town. Much ado is made of who might be interested in whom with many feeling that an attachment is forming between Frank and Emma, though other characters sense something else in the wind. Will Emma be able to pull off another marriage match or will she finally realize too late where her heart lies?

Here Emma is not quite so silly and immature as in other adaptations. She is young, and frankly probably bored and merely looking for something to occupy her time, yet also comes across to me as truly having Harriet’s interests at heart despite obviously not wanting to lose her as a friend. She is also devoted to her father yet not so slavishly as in other productions. I can also see how much she cares for Mr. Knightley even before she’s realized it herself when his condemnation of her actions at Box Hill cut her so deeply. It does take Harriet’s infatuation to finally jolt Emma’s awareness of her true feelings but Beckinsale and Strong have simmering chemistry from the very start. Mark Strong’s Knightley is more bluntly outspoken here – ready, willing and able to express to Emma his distress at her actions – though his distress is also plainly due to his feelings for her and wishes for her to be a better person than she sometimes shows herself to be. He might be more brusque than the polished Frank Churchill but clearly is the better and more mature gentleman.

This Mr. Woodhouse is suitably fussy and obsessed with nitpicky details that affect him – just listen to him go on about soft boiled eggs – and it’s a clever move on Emma’s part to win him over to her marriage by promising that with Knightley living there, the chickens will be safer. Prunella Scales is fantastic as the annoyingly babbling Miss Bates. I find I like Samantha Morton’s portrayal of Harriet as young and impressionable rather than being a silly twit while handsome Coulthard is smooth as the charmer Churchill who always lands on his feet – much to the annoyance of Knightley. Still it’s always clear that he’s not the calibre of man he should be given his advantages in life. Rowan is nicely snooty as Elton while Lucy Robinson is his match in scorn for inferiors and obsequiousness to social superiors. Olivia Williams does the best she can with the role of Jane and I find myself, as does Knightley, feeling she deserves better than she’ll get with faux Frank.

Andrew Davies did the screenplay and though the plot is truncated for time, it is far clearer and easier to follow than the movie from the same year. Diarmuid Lawrence – who directed some older favorites of mine including “By the Sword Divided,” a TV version of “Vanity Fair” and one episode of the period mystery series “Heat of the Sun” also does an excellent job. Since it’s a made for TV production, I would imagine that it didn’t have a huge budget but it never looked that way. The costumes are fairly standard Regency and the sets are elegant or, as in the case of the Bates, slightly shabby, enclosed and befitting their lowered financial status. I particularly like the lighting done with candles in several scenes. Yes, it’s dark but then this world, at night, was dark. Servants are also very visible here as their betters could never pick strawberries in rustic simplicity nor enjoy a picnic outing without them to provide the muscle and move the kneeling mats. One affectation I didn’t care for were the dream sequences used to convey Emma’s changing views. This version also seems a bit more serious than I recall the others being.

With such a good cast, and with the parts so well cast, along with a clear screenplay that makes it easy to follow the action, this is an easy hour and 45 minute viewing experience. I can feel how closed this small society must have been, how interested to the point of intrusiveness they would be in newcomers and how eagerly looking for novelty could lead to poking your nose into your neighbor’s business. This version seems to show the sharp social divides more than I remember the others doing as well as conveying the expected manners of the period. I find I like it better than the more recent 2009 one though I need to rewatch the 1996 movie before deciding how to compare it to that. B


Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. mirole
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 07:28:55

    Jayne, thank you for this review. I had not even been aware of this version and now I want to see it. I will shop around.

    I think I will enjoy it more than the one with Gwyneth Paltrow whom I love to bits but I thought she did not fit the role because she looks utterly modern (not her fault).

    I love Kate Beckinsale of her English period so I totally see her as Emma.

  2. Jayne
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 07:37:29

    @mirole: When I was reading up on this version, several sources mentioned that the release of the 1996 period movie plus the modern interpretation “Clueless” all around the same time as this one caused it to be overshadowed and overlooked.

  3. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 08:02:17

    I love this film. I do enjoy the Gwyneth version (swoon over Jeremy Northam), but it was glossy, farcical and romantic, whereas this version had more bite to it–and for some reason, I understood the characters’ motivations much better.

  4. Susanna Kearsley
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 08:22:59

    You had me at Mark Strong :-) Off to hunt this one down, now…

  5. Jayne
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 08:43:24

    @Susanna Kearsley: He was in “Fever Pitch” right after this one – two non-villainous roles of his I’ve really enjoyed.

  6. Jayne
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 08:47:23

    @Evangeline Holland: Yes, exactly – this one has more bite and less humor to it than the Paltrow/Northam version.

  7. Christine
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 09:00:35

    I tend to overlook this version as well. I saw it when it came out and while I enjoyed many of the supporting cast- I agree Samantha Morton is perfect in her role- I found the leads lacked warmth and spark. Kate Beckinsale seemed to be playing a reprise of her role in” Cold Comfort Farm” which is an adaptation I enjoyed more. Mark Strong as Mr Knightly has a tendency to “bark” at Emma and I always compare his “badly done Emma” scene with Jeremy Norton’s. Norton’s is chastising but also so regretful, you genuinely feel his anguish at Emma’s behavior and his having to reproach her. Strong seemed to me more like he was reprimanding a recalcitrant dog (no! bad dog!) than anything. I do agree this is more “realistic” and that you really understand what a manipulative and selfish cad Frank Churchill is and how the silent “saint” Jane is really getting no big bargain with him. The extra time also allows for more of the book and plot to be included including the great line where Emma convinces her father it will be safer with Knightly there after the thieves stole all the neighbor’s turkeys!
    I also wanted to say you mentioned a couple of my favorite, and alas little mentioned, series- By The Sword Divided (loved part one much better than part two) and Heat Of The Sun with the always divine Trevor Eve.

  8. Jayne
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 09:30:15

    @Christine: I see Strong’s “badly done” more as frustration with her. Remember one scene when Emma and Jane are playing the piano for company and Knightley says to Emma that she could be as accomplished a player if she’d only exert herself? I see him watching what Frank does here and Emma childishly goes along with and his level of exasperation with Emma finally causes him to blow his top.

  9. Jayne
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 09:35:20

    @Christine: I agree with you about the second half of “By the Sword Divided.” It seemed to drag a bit and lack the drive and verve of the first part. And I wish that “Heat of the Sun” had far more episodes than it does. It was also nice to see Susannah Harker demonstrate her acting chops a bit more than as saintly Jane Bennet.

  10. EGS
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 09:36:51

    I have only watched this version once, but I remember disliking it a lot. Kate’s Emma comes off as so cold and snobbish, with no real heart. Andrew Davies himself has said that he dislikes the character of Emma Woodhouse, and it really shows in this version. Mark Strong is also a bad choice for Knightley, because he seems so controlling and harsh with Emma. (But then again, no one can top Jeremy Northam for playing Mr. Knightley).

    I have a particular fondness for Emma Woodhouse; she gets maligned too often, imo.

  11. Alaina
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 10:15:01

    The best version of Emma that I’ve seen is hands down the 2009 miniseries with Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller. They have great chemisty and bring a sense of ease and likeability to the roles that I think is missing from the Gwenyth Paltrow version. Their Emma and Knightly really do seem to have known eachother for years. To be fair, I haven’t seen the Kate Beckinsale version, but given that it only earns a B here, I’m not worried that it would beat out the 2009 miniseries. I will have to watch it though, now that I know it exists!

  12. JacquiC
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 11:49:08

    This one sounds interesting, but I think I’m going to try the miniseries from 2009 first. I really disliked the Paltrow version. I thought Jeremy Northam, lovely as he is, was not old enough to be a convincing Knightley. I am not a huge Paltrow fan (with the possible exception of Shakespeare in Love). I also disliked Toni Collette as Harriet (though I have loved her in other things). But this 1996 version seems to have possibilities in relation to the movie — I do like the versions of Austen novels that have the characters acting more prim and proper (eg. the early BBC version of Pride & Prejudice with David Rintoul) and it sounds as if this one may lean more in that direction.

  13. Christine
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 11:49:09

    Jayne said “@Christine: I agree with you about the second half of “By the Sword Divided.” It seemed to drag a bit and lack the drive and verve of the first part.”

    @Jayne- I agree and think it had a lot to do with the fact that Part One was based on Mollie Hardwick’s book and the second series were original scripts written by the director/producer of the series. I also didn’t like where he took a number of the main characters- I didn’t feel that his choices for them made sense. Particularly the sister who married the “roundhead” parliamentarian openly becoming the mistress of one of Cromwell’s generals and treating her husband in such contempt.

  14. Leslie
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 12:11:08

    I loved Beckinsale’s Emma. Perfect casting. No one does Austen as well as Andrew Davies.
    I wish he would write Georgette Heyer for television.
    The McGrath Emma was awful, mostly because of the casting and too modern in language and fashion. Paltrow and Northam were well cast, but Polly Walker, Ewan McGregor and Toni Collette were bad choices in my opinion.
    Romolo Garai could recite the phone book and I would be fascinated, she’s wonderful as Emma and in Daniel Deronda and I Captured the Castle.

    Emma is the funniest of Austen’s book, it’s not as popular as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but it is a joy to read, everyone gets exactly what they deserve in the end.

    Thanks for the review, I’m off to the library to get the movie for the weekend.

  15. library addict
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 13:21:26

    This version is my least favorite of the 4 I’ve seen (the others being the 1972 mini-series, Paltrow’s film version, and the 2009 mini-series). Overall I thought Bekinsdale did a good job as Emma, but the shortened script and her on-screen bearing makes her Emma seem more mean-spirited than in the other productions.

    Strong had some very well-acted scenes, but lacks chemistry with Bekinsdale IMO. And he really wasn’t given much to do here.

    I normally enjoy Toni Collette’s performances, but her Harriet was played as too dimwitted for me. Whereas the actresses in the other three versions all shined in their various interpretations of the character (with Debbie Bowen’s performance being the best thing about the 1972 version).

    Olivia Williams did well with her limited screentime as Jane in this version.

    It’s really not fair to compare the shorter film and tv movie to the two mini-series, which had so much more time to develop the various subplots and characters. This version has some lovely cinematography and costumes. The middle is the best part. As much as I normally enjoy Andrew Davies’ adaptations, like with S&S, he really dropped the ball with this one. The overly PC ending certainly did not help matters. Other than a few characters, I give this one the edge over the film in terms of casting.

  16. Isobel Carr
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 16:25:10

    This is my favorite version to date. The characters seem the right age for their roles, and it’s not overly fussy or fake (all of which are major failings of the Paltrow version IMO, though I did love Jeremy Northam).

  17. msaggie
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 22:19:12

    I have to say that this is not my favourite version of Jane Austen’s Emma. I actually prefer the 2009 BBC version with Romola Garai and Johnny Lee Miller too. He’s probably too sexy a Mr Knightley, and Romola Garai’s too pretty an Emma, and the whole take is probably a bit modern but I think they had great chemistry, and portrayed the familiarity of prolonged sompanionship very well. Kate Beckinsdale’s Emma is a bit off, and Mark Strong is probably more Mr Knightley-like (as Jane Austen intended). I wish you had compared the two versions (or even the three, i.e. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam’s). Emma is the only rich Austen heroine, who is financially independent, and her self-sufficiency and sense of superiority can be quite off-putting. But she has a kind heart underneath it all! I do like the book, but Persuasion is probably my favourite Austen, along with Pride and Prejudice.

  18. Anni
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 21:41:59

    This was the last Emma version I saw (even after the 2009 one). I was just randomly looking up Jane Austen books, and the adaptations by film, and happened across this one. I really liked some of the characters and disliked others. The girl who played Emma looked most like the image I had in my head when I was reading Emma, so that was nice.

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