Jump to: Comparing the Knightleys
Emma 2 Review: Kali Pappas, 1997
Following the 5+ hour, class-act P&P2 production, Emma2 can understandably be considered deficient. Cramming a 484-page book into two hours (P&P is a hundred page shorter, and got three more hours space in the BBC/A&E production) makes it necessary to chop up the story. And considering the fact that we all knew we had another production of Emma coming through the pipe - by the same team that brought us P&P2, no less - it was relatively easy to dismiss Emma2 without appreciating it's definite merits. We came to appreciate Emma2 a little more once Emma3 proved that it wasn't perfect, either. The notable omissions in Emma2 (alphabets scene) appear less glaring when compared to the conspicuously sick-and-wrong additions we got in Emma3 (the harvest scene), and the humorous tone of Emma2, which had been thought by some to be too light, is more acceptable in comparison to Emma3's darkish treatment. Still, casting in 2 doesn't get the respect it deserves.
I suspect that the reason behind this is a general aversion to "Hollywood,' though it's important to note that Emma2 is by industry standards a small-budget "art" film. It is also not an "American" film, though it was released by an American company. Gwyneth Paltrow, the lone American castmember, blended in with the "Englishness" of the production quite well. Most British people admit that her accent was quite passable. Even Vivien Leigh, who will always be "the" Scarlett O'Hara, was regarded initially with suspicion when cast in Gone With the Wind. Why? Because she wasn't American, and, most importantly, she wasn't a southerner.
Perhaps Paltrow's portrayal is too syrupy (to quote Mr. Darcy, "she smiles too much."), but even then, her take is not beyond the realm of appropriateness. Her Emma is sweet, impulsive, charming, intelligent, capable, self-assured, and well-meaning, which certainly fits Austen's creation. She is certainly not the definitive Emma, but then again, neither is Beckinsale (too egotistically self-absorbed, even bitchy), who's actually British. Given that the book leaves so much to the imagination, I'm tempted to say that there will never be a definitive portrayal of any of the characters (except maybe Northam's of Knightley).
Paltrow's instincts were excellent. Her reaction during the "badly done" scene at Box Hill, for example, was very believable. The tortured expression on her face...almost to the point of explosive, dry sobs. Her Emma feels from her gut...quite literally, especially in the scene where Harriet admits to Emma her belief that Mr. Knightley is in love with her...Paltrow turns away from her, grasping her stomach, fighting back the tears, and gasps, " Mr. Knightley is the last man in the world who would intentionally give any woman the idea of his feeling more for her than he really does." THAT is the reaction of a girl who has suddenly realized, with the speed of an arrow, that a certain man must marry no one but herself! We need to feel, hot, wrenching thrills in the pits of our stomachs! Kate Beckinsale's reactions are unmemorable...she kind of glares spitefully at Mr. Knightley from the carriage after her scolding at Box Hill, and after listening to Harriet's pipedream, she merely looks surprised and disbelieving (I am, however, impressed by the waterworks she produces a bit later on...crying on the spot is tough!).
Comparing the Knightleys
Jeremy Northam's Knightley gets the most potshots, and for the most irrelevant reasons. A good 95% of the negative comments on the P&P2BB and AUSTEN-L focus on his appearance rather than his actual performance. I've heard him described as too young, too pretty, and even too short (either that, or Paltrow is too tall). While everyone is entitled to his or her own impressions and mental images of the novel, I think it's ridiculous to base a dislike of the performance - and partly through this a general dislike of the entire production - on such trivial matters. The fact is, especially in light of Mark Strong's Knightley, Northam's performance and appearance are definitely in the ballpark.
I did like Mark Strong's performance, though I believe his portrayal was too angry and one-dimensional to be perfectly in tune with my impressions of the novel. In either production, Jeremy Northam would have been an asset, as he shows the depth and development of Knightley's character while at the same time providing enough interaction for the development of Emma's (it could be said that Knightley's sole purpose in the book is to wake Emma up, rather than to stand as a character in his own right, though I couldn't agree with that). His Knightley has a certain sweetness about him, and a sense of humor, which I think is crucial to understanding how he could, for so long, deal with her iniquities and yet still respect and love her.
I've always viewed Mr. Knightley as a complete and magnanimous person - a friend and confidant to the heroine, who has willingly and quietly given her all the moral support she has needed and deserved throughout her life. He is not simply a stern father figure, and he does not allow personal desires to overwhelmingly color his interactions with her. "Mr. Knightley had a cheerful manner, which always did him good," writes Austen, which leads me to believe that while Mr. Knightley does not possess the charmingly energetic optimism of Frank Churchill, he is most definitely not a grouch. Mr. Knightley is certainly free with his negative opinions, but they are not uncalled for. He is not afraid to speak the truth, even of his beloved Emma to Mrs. Weston. I think perhaps Austen meant to foil Knightley's character with his brother John's, whose general negativity dulls the edges of Mr. Knightley's own gravity.
Strong's Knightley doesn't interact with Emma, he reacts to her - bitterly, even selfishly - and then pulls away from her, which makes it difficult for me to understand how they could have ever established amicable, let alone fraternal or romantic, feelings for each other. Both the love-attraction and parental concern are there in his portrayal, but to backward extremes! Strong's Knightley is intensely and overtly jealous, and his "parental" anger, even, is bitterly infused with sexual tension. Knightley's parental concern should be tender, not spiteful (Strong's read of the line about Emma being in love with some doubt of its return, for example).
Northam's Knightley, by contrast, utilizes an entire range of roles/reactions/"tools" in his dealings with Emma - he humors her, he laughs at her, he reprimands her, he encourages her, &c. - but he always stands by her, as a sort of silent, benevolent sentinel. Recall how Northam's Knightley spends the whole of the night at the Coles' watching Emma, checking her reactions to Jane's pianoforte performance - and to Frank. Even his distrust and dislike of Frank is ultimately more out of fear that Emma will be hurt or that her goodness will be altered for the worse, in concordance with the Knightley in the novel, than out of his own jealousy. In short, Mr. Knightley is a giving person, so secure with himself and with the world that he can give of himself and share his resources with others (lending his use of the carriage to the Bateses, dancing with Harriet at the ball and talking with her at the Donwell Strawberry outing, dealing daily with Mr. Woodhouse, &c., &c., &c.) without dumping upon others the inner torment he may be feeling.
I don't think Mark Strong's problem (if it really is one) lies in a lack of talent, understanding, or good direction...rather, it lies in a neglectful script. If you go straight by the novel's text, Strong's portrayal isn't really "wrong," but it does heavily accent the negativity in Mr. Knightley's character. There are a few friendly moments, and he plays them well, but they are so few and brief you barely notice them! This is because Davies seems to highlight scenes of anger (or scenes which can potentially be played angrily), and then ignores other points of character (including other characters' descriptions of Mr. Knightley's kindness, &c.).
I prefer the Doug McGrath screenplay, as it captures the humorous tone of the novel and allows the actors to portray the range and depth of emotion undoubtedly felt by each of the characters. Add the alphabets scene and a bit more attention to Frank and Jane, and you have as close to a perfect 2-hr screenplay for Emma as you can get. Having said that, it's also important to note, for Northam's sake, that even without that scene, his Knightley is still sufficiently aware and involved to suspect Frank's motives without appearing jealous and small. What's more, Strong managed to play the scene with nearly enough fire to convince me that his reactions were out of pure spite. The reprimand scene, too, allows Northam's character to become believeably and markedly livid with Emma - in a mixture of intense disappointment, loss, fear, and love - as he never had before. Mark Strong's equivalent scene is fine, but the effect of his anger is less dramatic as his reaction is rendered predictable by all that came before.