Emma and Persuasion, the Movies

I never did let loose with my opinion on the Persuasion and Emma movies, after finishing with the books. Yes, I did watch them – of course. I own the lot of them, some on VHS, still, taped off the TV, but most on DVD. So here it is, my entirely personal opinion on them in a rather large-ish nutshell (coconut, I presume).

So, three versions of Emma – both of the 1996 adaptations (what were they thinking, making two adaptations of the same book in the same year?), and the 2009 one with Romola Garai in the lead. That one is my favourite, as are all the mini-series film versions of the books vs. the theatrical releases (the same goes for Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility). You can just pack so much more detail into three or five hours than into an hour-and-a-half. The theatrical or shorter TV version have to, of necessity, leave out a lot, cut whole characters or events, or greatly simplify character or plot development, whereas the more leisurely pace of a miniseries allows for much more storytelling. They’re more booklike, if you will. Granted, the theatrical versions can pack more punch, in some ways – they’re a different medium again, not as far different as movies from books, but they’re not the same. If movies and books are apples and oranges, perhaps TV versions and theatrical releases are Granny Smith vs. Golden Delicious.

So in the 2009 version, they really build the backstory of Mr Woodhouse, of Emma, of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. You actually see little Frank and Jane being sent off to live with other people (in the movie, Jane is being sent away as a really small girl, to the sobs of her aunt and grandmother, whereas in the book it’s a far more gradual process – she just goes for visits with the Campbells, and then goes to live there when she’s 11 or so. Not nearly as heart-wrenching as they make it out in this film.). It’s also the only version in which Mrs Weston’s pregnancy isn’t ignored, and right towards the end she has her baby girl, which event miraculously restores Mrs Bates to speech – now she becomes so loquacious poor Miss Bates can’t get a word in edgewise. Not anywhere in the book, but funny nonetheless. Mrs Bates is, in fact, in none of the movies like the Mrs Bates of the book; they all make her out to be quite senile and mostly speechless. It’s one of the instances of movie adaptations taking as much from each other as from the source book. The 2009 Emma takes a lot from the Gwyneth Paltrow version (which is my other favourite). Even in looks – both Gwyneth Paltrow and Romola Garai are blonde and beautiful, whereas Kate Beckinsale in the other 1996 version is dark (but also beautiful).

I very much like all the Mr Knightleys in these three movies – as for a favourite, it’s a toss-up between Jeremy Northam and Jonny Lee Miller. The former is more elegant and handsome, the latter quite well fits the “plain gentleman” that Mr Knightley is meant to be in the book. Another character that’s really good in all three versions is Miss Bates; I guess she’s such a caricature she’s not difficult to write and play. The most memorable (and quotable) version of the three is probably Sophie Thompson’s, shouting at her real-life mother Phyllida Law as Mrs Bates: “PORK, Mother! ANGEL, Mother!” The three Harriet Smith’s are also all excellent; the 2009 one (Louise Dylan) perhaps the best by sheer screen time which allows her to build the character, while Samantha Morton opposite Kate Beckinsale gives her usual fantastic performance which really brings out Harriet’s sweetness and naïvete (I love her bubbly enthusiasm about Mrs Martin’s “sweet little welch cow”).

Emma is not a difficult character to bring to screen; all three of these films are very “successful” (I’ll rant about that word some other time). Emma is someone very easy to understand for 21st-century audiences; we “get” the headstrong heroine who gets in trouble because of her overdose of self-confidence. Emma’s declaration that she will never marry rings an easy bell for women who have grown up with feminism; there’s no difficulty for film makers in translating her attitudes to an audience. It’s much harder to make today’s audiences understand and relate to the Dashwoods, for example, or the Bennets, who must marry or be destitute.

Now, some quick words on Persuasion. I’m not entirely sure why they bothered making the 2007 version. Mind you, I’ve only watched it twice, but to my opinion, it doesn’t do anything that the 1995 movie doesn’t do, and do better. They alter the denouement, and the ending, which does away with one of the main points of the story, and the characters of both Anne and Wentworth are quite changed, too. In fact, this is a bit of a Jane Eyre version of Persuasion – Anne is perpetually downtrodden and unappreciated by everyone (including the Musgroves), while Wentworth is a scowling, resentful person, who in the end becomes Anne’s rescuer, restoring her to her rightful heritage (but only after she chases him, hatless, through the streets of Bath, partially accompanied by an inexplicably healthy Mrs Smith, to beg him to take her back). I’ll have to watch this version again a time or two, it might grow on me, but I’m not so sure.

However, the 1995 version with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds is, quite simply, the most beautiful film of any of the Austen adaptations. It is every time a delight to watch. The visual storytelling, the acting, the softness and the power of the characters, the beautiful artifice and yet utter naturalness… By the latter I mean especially the final scene, the commedia dell’arte pageant sweeping by Anne and Wentworth, who are so absorbed in each other they are completely untouched by the glitter, noise and hubbub of the circus, until they are left in the stillness of the street with just they two of them, arm in arm, walking through Bath. And this self-conscious staging throws into relief the naturalness of the setting and costumes – this is one of the few adaptations where people actually have messy hair, and look like they’re sweating after having just climbed a hill on country hike, and get red noses when they’re out walking in November. It feels “real”, somehow. And that in turn makes it so much more believable when Anne gets more and more pretty as the story progresses. Every time I watch this movie I so enjoy the art of the film makers; it’s a wonderful piece of work.

(And I wonder if the red cloaks Henrietta and Louisa are wearing on their walks and in Lyme aren’t the same ones that Kitty and Lydia have on in the 1995 P&P. Sir Walter’s ridiculous daisy-print coat makes a re-appearance in the 2007 Mansfield Park on the back of Tom Bertram, so they certainly re-use costumes from one film to the next.)

I’m knee-deep in studying background materials on film adaptations, and the Austen films in particular, for my term paper. It’s quite amazing how much has been written about that topic already. Seems almost presumptuous to want to add to that…

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3 thoughts on “Emma and Persuasion, the Movies

  1. The ’95 version of Persuasion is one of my all-time favorite movies, not just my favorite Austen adaptation. Amanda Root’s portrayal of Anne is breathtaking in its understatement and depth, and Ciaran Hinds was just perfect as the stubborn, slightly arrogant, genuinely good-hearted beneath it all Wentworth. I only watched the ’07 version once, and really hated it. Hard for anything to live up to the ’95 version, but that was worse than most.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma; I felt it captured the light-hearted spirit of the book far better than the Kate Beckinsale version. I love Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley even a bit better than Jonny Lee Miller (there was one aspect of Miller’s performance that really irked me when I watched it – I can’t remember what it was now, but it left a sour taste in my mouth), and I adore Mrs and Miss Bates in that one.

    I liked Romola Garai, but I felt she definitely overacted at times. Was she formerly a theater actress? It seemed like she was still trying to project across footlights. I kept wanting her to tone it down. Aside from that, and the aforementioned mysterious issue I had with Mr Knightley in that one (now I need to watch it again just to remember what it was that bothered me so much), I really enjoyed the ’09 version. Can’t believe that was four years ago now; seems like it just barely came out! Surely it must be just about time for a new Austen adaptation of ONE of the books …

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    • I agree, it’s an all-time favourite movie, not just Austen adaptation. The other all-time favourite is the ’95 S&S – I like the miniseries better as an adaptation, but the theatrical version is a gorgeous movie. And the Paddy Doyle music… [swoons].

      I don’t know if it’s time for another Austen adaptation yet (they’ve done all six in the last eight years), but I so wish someone would make a decent Mansfield. Amanda Root could have played a good Fanny, about 30 years ago, but that ship has sailed, unfortunately.

      However, I’m slowly getting to the point where I’m coming to appreciate the films as “texts” in their own right, without demanding them to be nothing more than moving illustrations of my inner vision of the book. It’s quite enjoyable, actually, as I get more out of the movies when I can let go of the “But that’s not in the book!” idea.

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      • That’s pretty much where I am with The Hobbit movies. I like seeing other people’s vision and what they get out – and put into – the story.

        But I don’t think I’ll ever like any of the current adaptations of Mansfield Park. Even for themselves.

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