Excellent Emmas, Robin’s Recommendations

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam

Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam

I own four different film versions of Jane Austen’s Emma: the 1972 six-part BBC miniseries with Doran Godwin and John Carson; the 1996 Hollywood film with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette, and Ewan McGregor; the 1996 ITV TV film starring Kate Beckinsale, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, and Raymond Coulthard; and the 2009 four-part BBC miniseries featuring Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, Louise Dylan, and Rupert Evans.
Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong

Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong

Everyone in my family has read the book, so we have had lively debates concerning our favorite film adaptations. None of us like the 1972 miniseries; everyone seems too old for their parts and the film quality is poor. We like different characters in the 1996 Hollywood and ITV versions, though we all prefer Kate Beckinsale to Gwyneth Paltrow (too nasal and too old for the part). Because the handsomest guys win with me, I like Jeremy Northam best of all the Mr. Knightleys and Raymond Coulthard for Frank Churchill. My husband thinks that Mark Strong does a better job with the Mr. Knightley part, and I do see his point. I will also agree that Strong is quite handsome when he wears his hat. My husband, influenced mainly by her pretty face, gives Kate Beckinsale the nod for the part of Emma. My daughter prefers Beckinsale as well. For the part of Harriet, Toni Collette is a wonderful actress, but she doesn’t look the part. We all agree that Samantha Morton deserves the nod there.

Beckinsale and Strong See what I mean about the hat?

Beckinsale and Strong
See what I mean about the hat?

We also are unanimous that the 1996 Kate Beckinsale version deserves kudos for beginning and ending with the chicken thieves, and we like the inclusion of the harvest ball during which Emma lets go of her pride and extends her hand to Robert Martin. That’s all true to the book.

Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller

Romola Garia and
Jonny Lee Miller

The 2009 BBC miniseries stands alone. At first, I thought it was too much of a departure from the real character of Emma Woodhouse, but when I watched it a second time, I became a fan – so much so that my husband bought me the DVD set for our thirty-seventh wedding anniversary. I like all the characters, though Louise Dylan should never be filmed lying down. That angle does dreadful things to her neck and face. Jonny Lee Miller is not devastatingly handsome, but he nails the part, though no one else will ever match Mark Strong’s rant after everyone learns of the engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. What we particularly liked was the fresh angle on the story.
Romola Garai

Romola Garai


It opens with Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill being sent away from Highbury as children, contrasting their lives with Emma’s sheltered childhood at Hartfield. All three of them lost their mothers, but Emma’s father was the only one who kept his children with him. That explains why he is so loath to let Emma go, and it gives a plausible excuse for the actions of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. They were, in Anne Shirley’s words, “kindred spirits,” having shared similar backgrounds.

In other words, I have no clear favorite. I watch my three favorites, choosing according to my mood. Whom do you prefer?

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6 thoughts on “Excellent Emmas, Robin’s Recommendations

  1. Stephanie Mudd Carrico

    I LOVE Jonny Lee Miller…He is my ideal Knightley…so the BBC miniseries is my favorite…
    I like the Gwenneth Paltrow/Jeremy Northam version also….not a big fan of the other two…
    Emma (and Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion) is my favorite Austen novel….depends on the mood I am in….

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    1. Robin Helm Post author

      I think Miller captures the essence of the character. I just wish he was a little taller. ; ) Those three books are my Austen favorites, too. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Susan Kaye

    I’ve never seen the ’72 version but I tend not to care for the BBC stage-on-film feel of those. I saw the Beckensale/Strong version first and enjoyed it. The Paltrow/Northam version is eh. And it’s Paltrow, not Northam. I thought they were both great in Possession. For some reason I kept waiting for Gwennie to sneak a look in a mirror. Her performance was too self-conscious. “Look at me, I am the embodiment of Emma. And I am an American who can affect a passable British accent!” She has a contemporary look that doesn’t fit.

    I like the newest version. It was fine as they go. I liked Miller as Knightley, Garai seemed a bit hyper.

    I suppose the telling thing is that I don’t own a copy of any of them.

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    1. Robin Helm Post author

      I really didn’t like Paltrow’s Emma either, and I agree that she looked like she was acting. Her look was wrong, too.

      Garai seemed young, but Emma was young, too. I think she best fits the part, though she comes across as a little spacey and flighty.

      We watch the Beckinsale and Garai versions more than the Paltrow. We rarely watch it.

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        1. Robin Helm Post author

          I agree with that. I didn’t care for Ewan MacGregor as Churchill either, though I like the casting of Mr. and Mrs. Weston and Jane Fairfax. The Bates ladies are always funny.

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