After watching the Sandy Welch BBC adaptation of Emma, I’ve been meaning to re-watch the older versions I own to see how they compare – and have now got round to seeing the short TV movie scripted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, which stars Kate Beckinsale as Emma and Mark Strong as Mr Knightley. Here are just a few slightly rambling comments before I get on to the other versions!
After the more leisurely pace of a four-episode version (though even that was much faster than the older adaptations), this dramatisation does feel very short at just 107 minutes. It almost seems as if Harriet is introduced one minute and turning down Robert Martin the next, with Mr Knightley bitterly upbraiding Emma a minute after that. However, despite this fast pace, I felt as if Davies manages to pack in all the key scenes from the novel – it would be fascinating to see how he would have treated the story if he had adapted it at greater length.
I think the most striking difference between this version and the Sandy Welch version is possibly in the character of Mr Knightley. As played by Jonny Lee-Miller, he is someone who holds back and stays silent about his feelings much of the time, standing in the background and watching. Mark Strong gives the character a more brooding, smouldering presence, at times recalling Colin Firth in Davies’ Pride and Prejudice. I also think Strong seems more angry and frustrated than I’d imagined Mr Knightley being – there are more scenes of him hectoring Emma, and he shouts “badly done!” at her about the Robert Martin incident as well as about Miss Bates. In this version, Mr Knightley is probably grumpier than his brother John, one of the characters who is semi-squeezed out because of the short running time. At times I do feel he is too angry and it’s hard to see why Emma can put up with it – but they do a lot with their eyes and body language to show the real affection that is there between them.
The dance scenes are beautifully done and I was pleased to see that we do get songs from both Emma and Jane (Olivia Williams) despite the shortness of time. The landscapes and country houses are photographed in soft colours, and combine with the music and costumes to create a feeling almost of getting inside an 18th-century landscape. I especially thought this in the little scene where Emma looks at a painting and imagines the painted face of Frank Churchill coming to life and speaking to her – which is in a way what the whole series is doing, bringing pictures from the past to life. The dream and daydream sequences in the Sandy Welch version intrigued me, so I was interested to see how many of them there are in this version too – often with Emma imagining a series of possible marriages for Harriet. Davies also used dream sequences in his adaptation of Northanger Abbey, where they were more Gothic. I suppose they are partly a way of bringing out the real tensions and fears beneath the polite surface and it strikes me they might work especially well in a short adaptation, as a sort of shorthand in images to show what the character is feeling.
Perhaps because of the shortness of the dramatisation as a whole and many of the scenes within it, I think the Highbury of this version has quite a claustrophobic feeling to it, more so than in the Sandy Welch version. Watching this version, it really struck me how much time everyone in this world spends trying to organise everyone else, from Emma’s matchmaking to Mr Woodhouse (Bernard Hepton) trying to prevent marriages, along with Frank’s bossy aunt and Mrs Elton’s interfering efforts to find Jane Fairfax a job.
I also suddenly realised just how many similarities there are between Emma’s attempts to organise Harriet’s life and Mrs Elton’s to organise Jane’s – both are equally convinced that they are doing the best thing for their protegee and that she should be grateful! Emma and Mrs Elton are both also convinced it is up to them to decide who is a “gentleman” or a “lady” – I realise this is all there in Austen’s words, but I’m not sure I’d thought about it enough before. Davies seems to put a lot of stress on the snobbishness and rivalry in this little world. I really feel that in the opening scenes Emma isn’t very likeable – in the most recent version, Romola Garai seems quite sensitive to what others are thinking from the start, but in this version Kate Beckinsale makes Emma seem a bit more self-possessed and ready to ride roughshod over people. I didn’t warm to her at all in the first half hour or so, but I think that is probably intentional and that Davies is wanting to keep the audience at a distance.
I especially like Samantha Morton as Harriet in this version – there is a delicacy to her which somehow makes it more believable that her character could be in love with Robert Martin and yet not know her own feelings. I like the change at the ending where Harriet has already decided to accept Robert before she knows about Emma and Mr Knightley – a twist which gives her greater independence and also draws a parallel between her and Emma, that neither of them really knew their own hearts. Harriet is less of a “silly girl” in this version and more of a younger friend who lets herself be persuaded.
I also like Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax – she doesn’t have enough screen time, but she gives the character just the right kind of reserve and stifled emotion. Prunella Scales is also great as Miss Bates in this version, an older version of the character than in some other adaptations. She does seem to ramble on breathlessly just as the character should – you’d think she would be less long-winded in a short film, but she manages to get more words into every scene than you’d think possible. I do think she gets the right blend of comedy and poignancy – the Box Hill incident is passed over quickly, but her feeling of hurt is unmistakeable. In this version, I thought Emma realises what she has done immediately, trying to laugh it off, but with the laugh freezing on her lips.
One part that grates with me slightly in this adaptation is the grand dinner at the end where Mr Knightley announces his engagement to his tenants and there is so much stress on just how rich he is and how much he has – a sort of feudal ending which goes beyond the scenes with Darcy at Pemberley in Davies’ Pride and Prejudice. I do like the proposal scene, though, which was very close to how it was done in the Welch version.
In general, I suppose I like the Welch version the best – but I do really like this one too, and especially Samantha Morton, who is one of my favourite actresses and was wonderful as Jane Eyre in another production I’ve written about on this blog. All Davies’ costume adaptations are worth watching time and again, and I just hope he gets the chance to do some more of them before too long, despite the current cutbacks by TV networks.