Though I do not prefer it to my dear Miramax version, the A&E/ITV Emma adaptation is certainly endearing. In the words of a dear friend, "it is Emma, after all." While both versions are user-friendly for Emma "virgins," Emma3, did much more to reveal plot details which were absent or vague in 2. To fully understand all that was flying past in 2, one had to have a fairly good grasp of the novel. Still, 3, for all of its instructive value, lacked 2's grasp of the novel's light tone and the depth and development of Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Emma 3: Kali Pappas' Review, 1997
The one area, characterwise, in which Emma3 is superior is in the treatment of John Knightley. I appreciated the fact that we got to see more of John (Guy Henry) and his sourness (and kindness, too). Perhaps the best-delivered line in the entire production is John's interruption of the effusive Mr. Elton, with whom he and Emma ride to the Westons' Christmas party. "Here's the parson. He looks keen enough..." And then, cutting Elton off in mid-emote, he seethes impatiently, "Get yourself in, Man, the door shut, and the less said, the better." Though Emma1 is the only one of the three adaptations that actually uses John in the capacity for which he is meant - as bearer of the truth about Mr. Elton to Emma - Henry's John is sufficiently crotchety to make one forget that the character doesn't fulfill his purpose. Unfortunately, however, he is a failure as a foil to Strong's George Knightley, who is too indignant to appear kind and cheerful next to his brother.
In Emma2, John and Isabella are both minor characters - ciphers, really - with shadowy significance to the plot. They exist, it seems, only to be the parents of little Emma, whose presence assists in reforging the friendship between the heroine and Mr. Knightley. In 3, we certainly get a dose of the children, but we also get a notion of John as their father. After an evening of horsing around at Hartfield, much to the distress of Isabella and her father, all of the children are sent to bed but the baby, for, laughs John, "she makes no noise!" To Emma, who is holding her, he continues with a gentle smile, "You look well thus, Emma." Even in Emma's anxious conversation with Mrs. Weston in 2 ("I love John!/I hate John!") regarding Mr. Knightley, Harriet, and his trip to London, the significance of the younger Knightley is easy to miss (indeed, in one of the Miramax film trailers, audiences are led to believe that "John" is George!).
I was also impressed with the attention given by Davies to the secret engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and Mr. Knightley's suspicion of their attachment. Jane's and Frank's reactions to each other at Box Hill were perhaps heated beyond accuracy, but they certainly captured the painful resentment developing between the two lovers. Squeezing in the alphabet puzzle scene at the picnic also made for some erroneously obvious anger on Jane's part. However, the inclusion of this important scene remains an improvement over 1 and 2, which omitted it altogether. The puzzle scene is especially vital as it provides very definite clues as to the nature of the Frank-Jane connection and as it illustrates Mr. Knightley's "penetration." Mr. Knightley understands the significance of Frank's "blunder" puzzle, while Emma is led astray by Frank"s red-herring ("Dixon"). Showing Jane as she pushed past Frank at Donwell, and Mr. Martin spying her as she sobbed through the field were also nice touches. The latter scene leads us to believe that Martin passes on the observations to his friend and landlord, Mr. Knightley, who is then reconfirmed in his suspicions.
Raymond Coulthard's portrayal of Frank, however, left me cold. Despite his well-timed, cheesy grins, and his striking similarity to Jimmy Hazeldine, who plays his father, he struck me as innaccurately slimey - as slick and fake as Adrian Lukas' Wickham in P&P2. In fact, I wonder if perhaps Davies reused the character of Wickham as a template for Frank, who in character displays many striking similarities. Andrew Davies has referred to Frank as "a clever, dangerous, misogynistic charmer" who has it out for womankind. Oh, spare me! Frank, as impetuous, impulsive, and occasionally selfish as he is, is not the jerk which Emma3 makes him out to be. On the whole, he and Emma made me ill when they gossiped together - they were pure, catty evil, which strikes me as entirely wrong. I did, however, appreciate his attempted confession to Emma, as it gave us a glimpse of a sensitivity deeper than that which Ewan MacGregor's superior Frank possessed (to be honest, though McGregor's manner suited Frank better, he didn't have the screen time to multidimensionalize him).
In general, Kate Beckinsale banged out a decent portrayal, in spite of her tendency towards witchiness. Emma, though we know she felt threatened by the superiority of Jane, was not such a bitch that she would derive such obvious and malevolent glee from cutting her down in front of Harriet ("...I wish her well, but I am sick of the name of her!" condenses the actual dialog from chapter 10, but the delivery here appears to slam Jane more than it slams Miss Bates), or even in cahoots with Frank. While the perfect Emma may not be quite so energetically sweet as Paltrow's or even Doran Godwin's, she would have never have spoken with such an acid tone about anyone (not even Jane or Robert Martin). Beckinsale enjoyed too much Frank's potshots at Jane's hair, complexion, &c., if only because they inflate her own ego at the expense of Jane's superior qualities. Emma certainly has strong opinions of others, but in the novel, as in the Miramax adaptation, was reasonably successful at keeping them to herself ("When I am pressed, I say she is "elegant." - E2).
Beckinsale's Emma was decidedly more selfish and bitchy than delusional, and I'm not sure if that makes Emma more believable as a character, less believable as a phenomenon/cipher for delusion, or both. Whichever the case, we did lose a sense of Emma's continuing development as a character - of her "education," so to speak. Her growing subconscious appreciation for Mr. Knightley is completely lacking in Davies' script, which makes her romantic epiphany unbelievable. Davies' decision to present the Emma-Knightley relationship in an adversarial light, as opposed to McGrath's friendlier treatment, is partially to blame. In another potshot at Davies' screenplay, I think Emma's open admiration for Frank was way off...she never publicly admitted as much in the book, and even her defense of Frank to Mr. Knightley was more devil's advocacy than anything else. In addition, the chronology of her feelings for Frank is out of sync with the book's progression.
As far as Strong's portrayal of Knightley...I'll admit it, he was quite good. Not as charming or attractive as Jeremy Northam, but against any other standard, he was great. The scene at the Crown ball ("Whom are you going to dance with?" - "With you if you shall ask me!") and the proposal scene in the Hartfield garden were very sensitively-played. At those moments, Strong calms down enough to cast Beckinsale some smitten stares while speaking from the heart (I kept waiting for him to press Emma's hand against his heart during the proposal, like Mr. Knightley does in the book whilst he tries to comfort her about the Frank incident, but he never did. No matter!). One particularly cute, relaxed moment ocurred upon arrival at the Coles' (in this adaptation, the Westons'), when Emma tells him, "Using your carriage for once, like a gentleman!" To which he replies with a grin, "Then it's fortunate we should arrive at the same time, so that you might see that I am more of a gentleman than usual this evening!"
An excellent portrayal of such a character, Jeremy's or otherwise, cannot be discounted. A rose is still a rose, even if his name is not Jeremy Northam. Strong was perhaps a little too outwardly intense at times, though, and reacted to Emma almost spitefully (esp. re: Frank, which I agree is natural but I've always considered Mr. Knightley too gentlemanly and indulgent to be to be so witchy). He was, on the whole, not enough of a confidant, and more of a bad-cop parent. This is not to imply that Mr. Knightley should never display any "tall indignation." His scolding at Box Hill, and subsequent "Badly done, Emma! Badly done indeed!" were sufficiently grave and perfectly intense.
The casting of lesser characters was very sound, most notably in the selection of Prunella Scales as Miss Bates. While not so perfectly funny as Sophie Thompson's Miss Bates, Scales captured the eager, awkward kindness of the character. The look of hurt on her downturned face after Emma's insult at Box Hill is wrenching, and the forgiveness with which she meets Emma the next day is touching (in contrast to the hurried and ambiguous reception in Emma2). And when Emma seeks to reconcile herself with Jane, Miss Bates, peering out of her second-story window, attempting to appear casual as she informs Emma that Jane Fairfax is not well enough to have visitors, Scales' Miss Bates is at once lovable and pitiable. Bernard Hepton's Mr. Woodhouse is also lovably pathetic, but in a childlike sort of way. "I do not like it, Emma, when people go away!" he pouts as Mr. Knightley leaves for London. "Nor do I," Emma replies, for once sounding nearly as forlorn as her father at the prospect of Mr. Knightley's leaving.
As far as the production in general, I am positive, but not without reservations. Emma's dream sequences, though a bit ridiculous, successfully illustrate Emma's imagination. The first, of Harriet's and Elton's "marriage," cracked me up. "...and to think, " Harriet says, "I should turn out to be the daughter of a baronet!"
The dance at the Crown in which Frank and Emma stand up with the Eltons is particularly well-constructed. Mr. Elton refuses to look at her, and Mrs. Elton, eternally jealous of Emma's social influence among her friends, stares coldly. And Mr. Elton's refusal to stand up with Harriet - according to Mr. Knightley, "aimed to wound more than Harriet! Why are they your enemies, Emma?"
Davies' addition of the harvest festival, while an admirable attempt to tie up loose ends, especially between Emma and Harriet, was rather unnecessary. It didn't really detract, but considering Emma2's success without such a device, in was conspicuous. Curiously enough, both recent adaptations, against the implications of the novel itself, sought to reconcile the friendship of Emma and Harriet in the end. In the novel, it is evident that Emma has outgrown her groundless fascination with Harriet, and that Harriet has come to realize the fallibility of her friend's choices for her (In Clueless, Tai realizes Cher's imperfections, but even there, they remain good friends). The friends naturally drift apart, having little in common, instead of reconciling themselves in a reaffirmation of their friendship.
While Emma3 loses the cohesive hilarity which 2 maintained, there are some notable stabs at humor on Davies' part, most notably the poultry theft scenes which open and close the production, bringing us full-circle in the life of Highbury. I laughed out loud during the church scene, in which Emma selects Harriet as the companion of Elton's future life by the ray of light from on high which settles upon her sweet, bland face. In all, however, Davies seemed to purposefully omit most of the humorous scenes revolving around Emma's ridiculous matchmaking, which draws attention away from the fact that Emma is a very funny novel (damn these snobs who want to make everything more literary than the literature itself!). I particularly missed the "broken lace" scene - in which Emma attempts to throw Elton and Harriet together long enough for a proposal - and the "court-ship" riddle.
Settings and wardrobe were charming and comfortable, but lacked the bright, airy quality of the previous adaptation. All was neat and pretty, but not nearly as magical - or fitting - in colors or intensity of light. My one major pet peeve was Beckinsale's hats, specifically selected to fit the personality of the heroine (?). I can't argue with the propriety of headgear...however, I think the deliberate (-ly hideous) selections made by the costumer in Emma3, in contrast to the determined focus away from Emma's headwear in Emma2 (there's only one, simple, light-colored bonnet, and it's pretty benign), serves to mark the divergence in character between the two Emmas. The number and style of KB's hats lend her an hawkish, old-maidy, Caroline-Bingleyesque air, while the style and scarcity of Paltrow's bonnet helps create an aura of youthful sweetness and activity. Highbury, however, was a particularly welcome sight, as the real-life village of Lacock (Meryton in P&P2).
In all, this adaptation was enjoyable, but might at first prove a bit disappointing to those who are devoted the Miramax version. It is more faithful to the novel in plot detail, but lacks the main character development and humor which I so loved in Emma2.