In which we review every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.
Director: Diarmuid Lawrence
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Bernard Hepton, Mark Strong
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
I really do think Emma is Jane Austen's best heroine. She has the least to lose, so she is the most comfortable in her own skin and makes her decisions based on completely different criteria than your Harriet Smiths or your Catherine Morlands. This allows her to tread further, make more dire mistakes, and achieve more growth as a result. Clueless gets this. But of the two non-modernized adaptations of Emma to arrive just the following year, I certainly wasn't expecting the TV movie to be the one to get it right.
And I was correct. It didn't.
I really don't even see why I bother synopsizing the plots of these, so let's make it quick. After making the mysterious decision to open on a chicken thief raiding the grounds of Hartfield (setting up a bookend sequence at the very end, very poorly), we meet Emma Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale, the only reason this adaptation has made the slightest impression on the culture at large), a rich young woman who has grown rather bored with her small town life and seeks to manipulate the other young people around her into falling in love, especially her docile simpleton of a friend Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton). She does this despite the admonishments of her brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong, the only other famous Brit to escape this project), who of course she eventually falls in love with.
Also Mark Strong (right) is an attractive man, so kudos to the stylist who managed to make him look so thoroughly unappealing.
I could end this review in a single sentence, because that's how little thought apparently went into the proceedings here. Though I shall soldier on as much as I can, because I owe myself a little venting after suffering through the thing. This Emma is yet another dull as dishwater Austen adaptation for British television, boasting all the creative vivacity and spark of a hot sausage. Literally just listening to the audiobook is a more engaging experience, the visuals are that deeply generic.
Emma suffers from the common mistaken assumption that Jane Austen's works are Serious Literature and thus must have all the air sucked out of them at once. While the humor of the novel isn't quite as present as her other works (or, at least, it's a little more repetitive and tiresome), it's still meant to be a satirical comedy about dating. Instead, as the British are won't to do, they have given us yet another stonefaced slog filled with wall-to-wall Goofuses posing as leading men.
Or maybe it's just that nobody can pull off Regency fashions. Come to think of it, they were probably created to discourage sex as much as possible, which would explain a lot.
Thankfully, the film does have a single creative bone in its body. Though it's certainly not enough, it at least provides relief from the crushing doldrums in brief little flashes. First and foremost are the fantasy sequences in which Emma imagines the happy results from her matchmaking. These are very reminiscent of the daydreams in the 1987 Northanger Abbey, and they break up the narrative quite nicely with a little burst of color and visual verve.
And I always say that the best measure of a Jane Austen adaptation's worth is if it can do something with its obligatory dance sequence that's more than just flatly showing people dance (think the other ballgoers vanishing in Pride & Prejudice to highlight Lizzie and Darcy's intimacy). True to form, Emma misses the mark, but it does at the very least make an attempt. There is an exchange of eyes in between choreographed moves that really allows the viewer to take stock of where each character is emotionally in relation to one another. It's a simple but effective tool, and I commend it for at least doing something, even if it wasn't enough for me to give the film a wholehearted recommendation.
I've suffered through a lot of stodgy, boring Jane Austen material in my time, and Emma is at least not the worst of them. That's about all I can say in its favor though. But until next time, all we can say is thank goodness Amy Heckerling was there in 1995 to save this novel from complete cinematic ignominy. Maybe one day we'll get a straight adaptation that's worth its salt, but today is not that day. Nor was 1996, for that matter.
TL;DR: Emma is plain as porridge, an incredibly listless adaptation of a work I admire rather a lot.
Word Count: 794
Other Films Based on Emma
Clueless (Heckerling, 1995)
Emma (McGrath, 1996)
Emma (Lawrence, 1996)
Emma. (de Wilde, 2020)