Emma (1996), My New Favorite
Dear Reader, Greetings.
I lay before you the purpose of my Jane Austen column: to focus on reviews of select adaptations of her novels. On a five-point scale, I hope to justify my thoughts with the use of quotes, therefore, there will be inevitable spoilers. Beware. That said, each review will score the following: character development, additional/edited scenes/speeches (anything not in the original book), and production quality.
“Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.”
I know, I previously stated that Emma (2009) is the best adaptation of one of my favorite books of all time, but I may have to retract that statement. Emma (1996) starring Gwyneth Paltrow represents everything I love about Jane Austen’s heroine. She is more independent than in the other adaptations I have watched to date and each additional scenery change adds a new layer to the development of the relationship between her and Mr Knightley. Most importantly, in a mere two hours, I feel as attached to Emma as I feel toward Elizabeth Bennet after rewatching all six hours of P ride and Prejudice (1995). Now, that’s a whole new level of achievement.
While each member of the supporting cast accurately reflects their respective character, their roles lie in supporting the development of Emma’s character. As per usual, Miss Bates is a boring chatterbox and Jane Fairfax is the source of Emma’s envy. Mrs Weston rarely appears on screen other than the pivotal moment when Emma finally acknowledges her feelings toward Mr Knightley. In the book, she did not confide in anyone, yet in the movie, she directly tells Mrs Weston, showing the maturity she lacks in the beginning. I appreciate the openness of her character in comparison to other dramatizations, where she is less inclined to admit her feelings.
On various occasions, Emma is seen riding around Highbury on her own, driving her own carriage. This addition highlights the character’s sense of independence and control. These two characteristics are highlighted in the following two scenes. First, interactions between Mr Knightley and Emma are at the forefront of the production, specifically in the archery scene. Anyone who has seen the poster for the Emma movie, depicting the character with a bow and arrow in hand, knows that this particular scene plays an important role. Acting as an opportunity to place both characters on an equal playing field, thus cementing Emma’s independence, each arrow’s accuracy in hitting the target serves its own purpose. For example, Emma’s arrow misses the target when she defends her meddling in Harriet’s response to Robert Martin’s proposal, while when Mr Knightley says “men of sense, whatever you may say, do not want silly wives,” the arrow evidently hits the target. Another important instance of scenery change is when Harriet initially shows Emma Robert Martin’s proposal. Directly behind them is a group of farmers and sheep, who Emma ignores. Hence, her belief in the inferiority of farmers is further demonstrated.
The visual effects enhance the fairytale aspect of the movie, and within each scene, Emma’s face is glowing. The picturesque scene where she accompanies Mr Knightley down the aisle as flower petals are thrown from both sides is one of many examples of this point. Another unique production aspect is the opening credits labelled “The World According to Emma” in my mind. Each character and their house is shown one after the other until Hartfield, Emma, and Mr Woodhouse appear on the screen. Later, Emma emerges holding a globe, thus cementing the notion that everything and everyone revolves around Emma.
These last three paragraphs denote a few of the many wonderful examples of phrases, gestures, or scenes that I absolutely adore in Emma (1996), hence its five-star rating. While a more loosely based adaptation with quite a few changes throughout, it is simultaneously modern yet authentic. I could get into many heated debates over the best casting for each role in the book, but the choice of Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma and Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley is undoubtedly my favorite.