The other version of Emma to be released in 1996 was written and produced by the same team that gave us Pride and Prejudice only a year before. This version, shown on the BBC and A&E television took a much different look at the story from it’s big screen counterpart. Beginning with a veteran Austen cast including Bernard Hepton (Sir Thomas Bertram, MP1) as Mr. Woodhouse, Samantha Bond (Maria Bertram, MP1)as Mrs. Weston and Lucy Robinson (Louisa Hurst, P&P2)as Mrs. Elton, this version gave a muted but in the end faithful picture of Austen’s fourth novel. Other actors included Kate Beckinsdale (Hero, Much Ado About Nothing) as Emma Woodhouse, Raymond Coulthard (Young Scrooge, The Muppet’s Christmas Carol) as Frank Churchill, Samantha Morton (Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre 1997 as Harriet Smith and Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty, Fawlty Towers) as Miss Bates.)Scales already had another Austen connection: her son, Sam West, played Mr. William Walter Elliot in Sony’s 1994 Persuasion.
Filmed primarily in Lacock, a village made famous in Pride and Prejudice, and other National Trust houses around England, this Emma includes many scenes lacking in the year’s other offering. We are treated to chicken thieves, a game of anagrams, and strawberry picking at Donwell (“Donkeys, Janet!”). Other scenes were invented for plot development- the arrival of Jane’s piano, the unexpected but in the end quite satisfying dinner at Donwell, and (Who could forget!?) Emma’s imaginations! These scenes, though not present in the book give an amusing twist to an already delightful film.
Where Miramax’s Emma was light, bright and sparkling, this version tends to show more of the dirt and even, at times, the poverty experienced at the time, lending it a feeling of reality lost in other more “cinematic” films. Whether at dinner or in the hot and dusty outdoors, the director sought to give a period touch with authentic meals (using period recipes!), smokey interiors and terribly dirty, muddy roads. The costumes, created by Jenny Beavan also reflect that same attention to detail, giving full credit to her extensive research and love of history.
Beavan, who has been Oscar-nominated for her work in such films as Anna and the King, A Room with a View, and Sense and Sensibility – talks of her work in “The Making of Jane Austen’s Emma“. The setting, nearer 1815 than S&S2’s 1800, provided a welcome challenge to her, for, though the styles were similar, they do provide a stark contrast to the discerning eye. Add to that the provinciality of Highbury in comparison to the cosmopolitan world of London and the Dashwood’s former wealth, and you have a completely new wardrobe to assemble. Very few garments from other adaptations were availble for use in this production, so most of the outfits were tailor made for this production (Sharp observers will notice Mrs. Weston wearing a few of Jane Bennet’s gowns.). Ms. Beavan won an Emmy for her costumes in this film.
Along with costuming, hairstyles are a major concern when filming a period piece. Stylist Mary Hillman put quite a lot of thought into showing each character’s disposition through their personal style. Emma has elaborately coiffed, somewhat perky curls, Harriet’s hair, presumably arranged by herself, is done very simply. Mr. Woodhouse clings to outdated fashions and tradition with his periwig. Frank’s, and we all know how fastidious he was about his hair, is always perfectly styled into place. Many of the actors and actresses involved in this film were able to use their own hair for all scenes. Two exceptions were Kate Beckinsdale, who wore extensions, and Mark Strong (Mr. Knightley)- who is actually bald!!
Mark Strong and Jeremy Northam have, inevitably, endured much criticism for their quite different portrayals of Mr. Knightley. Strong’s comes across as angry- more intense perhaps, while Northam’s is much more easy-going. Again, as in the Miramax production, this film benefits from having actors who are actually close in age to the characters they play. Perhaps the most interesting link between the two films is the portrayal of Harriet Smith by Samantha Morton (A&E) and Toni Collette (Miramax). Both these actresses have since had fine careers which once again crossed paths when they contended with each other for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2000. Neither actress won.
Despite it’s dark overtones, Emma remains an entertaining and delightful adaptation. The carriage proposal scene with Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan) is not to be missed! Emma is available in both DVD and VHS formats and runs for approximately 107 mins. The DVD features a bonus biography of Jane Austen and closed captioning. There is no language selection available. The book, The Making of Jane Austen’s Emma is out of print but can occasionally be found on Ebay or in used book stores.
Photos of Lacock and Jenny Beavan’s gown, courtesy of William Kemp. Visit his site for more fabulous Jane Austen related photography!
Laura Sauer is a collector of Jane Austen Films and film memorabilia. She also runs Austentation, a company that specializes in custom made Regency Accessories
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