Friday, July 29, 2011

Emma Cubed. Four Emma Adaptations -- all Acting Performances Graded

I have had so much fun with Emma lately, I wasn't quite ready to give her up. Having now formed opinions on the performances of most of the actors and actresses in most of the key roles in all four adaptations, I've decided to go ahead and rank 'em!

For my review and comparison of the overall quality of the adaptations see  "So Many Emmas, So Little Time."

Emma Woodhouse
A four way tie. All the actresses are good in this role and I enjoy various things about each, but none truly satisfies what I want to see in the title role of Emma. Each has some flaw in her performance that is too distracting to overlook. 

Gwyneth Paltrow (1996 Movie) is too languid and aristocratic for my taste and I find her voice to be a distraction. Kate Beckinsale (1996 TV) is excellent in many ways, but snooty and not very likeable. I don't find Doran Godwin (1972) as problematic as many others do, but she is too theatrical and overblown. And, although Romola Garai (2009) is very appealing in general, I find her eye rolling, scowling and insecurity too modern a take on this character that makes her seem not so much young, as juvenile. They all rate a B+

 Too aristocratic                         Too snooty/unlikable        Too many odd facial tics        Too modern&juvenile

 Mr. Knightley

1. Jonny Lee Miller (2009). He is simply excellent. I can hardly picture anyone else in the role after seeing him. He completely inhabits Mr. Knightley and brings every characteristic I want to see: strength, care, gentlemanliness, importance, friendly openness, but just a touch of stress that comes from great responsibility. Everything. A+

2. Jeremy Northam (1996 Movie). Clearly a beautiful man, maybe a touch too much for this part. He brings a very relaxed quality to Knightley and is kind and accessible. Very gentlemanlike, no doubt. But, there is no romantic tension in this version because it is inconceivable that someone wouldn't notice and fancy him.  A

3. John Carson (1972). Carson's performance is wonderful in this role, though he gets overlooked. He has a wonderfully caring, slightly paternalistic, very grown-up charm that I appreciate. However, he really is too old (relative to his leading lady) to pull off this role.     A-

4. Mark Strong (1996 TV). He brings a more passionate and intense style of Knightley than the others. I like him, but am troubled that he doesn't seem to like Emma for most of the picture. By the end, he becomes more appealing. B+

Mr. Woodhouse

1. Michael Gambon (2009). His performance is unbelievably touching and heartrending. He brings the sweet silly earnest adorability of Mr. Woodhouse, adding so much to the story. I would watch it again and again just to see him. Perfect acting. A+

2. Bernard Hepton (1996 TV). I enjoyed his performance in this role too. He is very enjoyable and gets the role entirely. He is allowed to be funny and poignant and some of his moments with Miss Bates are the best in the film.   A

3. Donald Eccles (1972). I definitely like his dottering-old-man-ness. He is funny, but almost more pathetic than loveable. You can see his frailness, but very little charm. His performance is good, but not a very likeable one. Its easy to see why his Emma (Doran Godwin) gets fed up with him sometimes. B+

4. Denys Hawthorne (1996 Movie). This characterization is entirely forgettable. It is a shame, because Mr. Woodhouse can be the backbone of the Emma story - her relationship to her father is one of the things that makes her likable in spite of her faults. This Mr. Woodhouse is given almost nothing to work with.   C.

Miss Bates
This is a tough one! Wow, we have some wonderful performances. The tiniest slightest edge goes to . . .

1. Sophie Thompson (1996 Movie). She is incredible in this role. So touching, that simply thinking about her performance can bring me to tears. Her performance is quintessential Miss Bates and it would take a lot to dislodge it from my brain. Amazing acting.  A+

2. Tamsin Greig (2009). She is also outstanding. If anyone could come close to dislodging Sophie Thompson, it is Tamsin Greig. She is touching and heart rending as well. I care about her and like her. Wonderful acting. A+

[It is interesting that the two actresses above are in their early/mid 30s in this role and the two actresses below are in their 60s. Its a funny split. I like them all, but think the younger age suits the character better.]

3. Prunella Scales (1996 TV) turns in a wonderful performance as Miss Bates. She is funny and touching. This is a tough field, because all the actresses do a fantastic job in the role. She lacks that extra something powerful that Tamsin and Sophie bring. But she is a wonderful Miss Bates too.   A

4. Constance Chapman (1972) seems old enough to be Mrs. Bates, rather than Miss, and feels unsuited for this role -- though I'm not sure Jane Austen ever says anything about the age of Miss Bates, so I guess she could be 60ish. In any case, I think she gives a fine and touching performance as well.   A-

Harriet Smith
1. Louise Dylan (2009). She is excellent; great look and performance. She brings out the prettiness, sweetness, pliability and slight stubbornness, but allows us to like Harriet and not really worry about her or think about her all that much. You can see why Emma would go out of her way to pay attention to this Harriet, but you can also see that Harriet would better be left alone to live a simple life. Great job. A

2. Debbie Bowen (1972). This Harriet is a fine one, though not superb. She is a bit interesting, a bit annoying. At times she seems quite pretty and appealing. She shows  huge amount of deference to Emma, which is a good thing and makes for a nice little sidekick.  B+

3. Samantha Morton (1996 TV). Also a nice performance, though a bit irritating. I like how she looks, though she gets too cloying and pushy. She is sweet enough, but I honestly don't know why Emma gives a crap what this Harriet is doing.   B

4. Toni Collette (1996 Movie). This is my least favorite Harriet. I don't know why exactly, she just irritates me. I don't like it when she is on screen. She seems big and horsey, which may seem like a mean thing to say, and I am not usually mean, but I don't think she is suited to this role. I just want to slap her. I think Harriet should be simple, sweet, likeable, but not worthy of too much consideration. I truly can't fathom why Gwyneth Paltrow is hanging out with her.     B-

Frank Churchill
1. Rupert Evans (2009). Perfect Frank. He really sells the role. He is  charming and superficial but there is also a depth to him that is interesting enough to want to get to know him better. It is hard to play the role because Frank, himself, has to be a good actor; the actor who plays him has to be doubly good and manage to suggest that Frank is in fact acting, without giving anything away. Rupert does just that. A+

2. Raymond Coulhard (1996 TV) has a different take on Frank, but a very nice one. He is very sparky and seductive - a real dandy on the surface. But he is also played with depth and interest that I like. He and Emma (Kate Beckinsale) have great chemistry; unfortunately, far better than hers with Mr. Knightley in this one.   A

3. Ewan McGregor (1996 Movie). Its crazy to say this, because Ewan McGregor is a hotty and a good actor, but he is a boring Frank Churchill. He just doesn't bring anything special to the role and is fairly forgettable. I'm not sure that's his fault or the screenwriters, but its a disappointment. There is little chemistry between Emma (Gwyneth) and Frank and that makes their relationship boring.  B

4. Robert East (1972). I like the way he plays Frank: warm and sophisticated. His manners are wonderful, but he has exaggerated expressions that are somewhat irritating. This Frank is very capable but not quite desirable enough. Still he and Doran have a nice easy chemistry that I like.  B

Jane Fairfax
1. Olivia Williams (1996 TV). She is perfect as Jane Fairfax! She has a calm understated elegance. She is all about perfect propriety and gentleness. But there is a deeper intelligence about this character that makes you know there is more than meets the eye. Olivia really brings it to the role.   A+ 

[I think its interesting that the rest of these Janes are played with a bit of an accent. Is this an intentional choice to make Jane seem more cosmopolitan? Also, my 2nd and 3rd choice Janes have a very similar look with their heart shaped little faces and huge round eyes.]

2. Laura Piper (2009).  She is good. One of my favorite scenes in any Emma is where she is talking to Emma about being wearied in spirit; Laura's performance is touching and always plays through my mind when I think of Jane.  A-
3. Ania Marson (1972). I think she is a bit too short tempered and harsh. She certainly gets across the worry and angst of the character, but not so much of the delicacy and sweetness.  B

4. Polly Walker (1996 Movie). Other than the fact she is gorgeous, she brings little to the role. She just sits there trying not to look too insanely sexy- which is hard to do, so I should give her credit for it. I can't remember anything about her performance, other than her physical presence.  B-

Mr. Elton

1. Blake Ritson (2009) does it all! He makes Elton funny, but still sexy. Understandable with a nice depth to his character, but someone you don't really like. Although he is comic relief, he isn't superficial. This is a fabulous performance. Absolutely fabulous.   A+

2. Timothy Peters (1972). He brings a good understanding of what drives Elton -- playing him in a serious way, rather than for laughs. He's not totally repulsive, just misguided and self-interested. I think he adds a lot to the production.  He's almost likeable if he weren't so smarmy.  A- 

3. Alan Cumming (1996 Movie) plays Elton to great comic effect. Unfortunately, you don't get a deeper feel for him as a character. He is great and enjoyable, and in that way adds a lot to the production, but I feel like he is given short-shrift in this production.   A-

4. Dominic Rowan (1996 TV). He plays the character as if he has a mouthful of marbles. Yes, smarmy is good for Elton, but not so much that we can't figure out why anyone would see him as a good catch.  Still, he makes a really good partner to Mrs. Elton and he comes alive in those scenes.  Overall, B+

Mrs. Elton

Mrs. Elton is another character, like Miss Bates, that must be so fun for actresses to play; there is a lot to work with and all of these actresses turn in performances that are funny and fun.

1. Lucy Robinson (1996 TV) is perfect. She personifies this role. She makes it funny and you feel just the tiniest bit sorry for her. She reaches deep and grabs that bit of humanity -- and then pulls it out and throws sarcasm on top. It is a treat to hate her.  A+

2. Fiona Walker (1972) has to be one of the best parts of the 1972 adaptation. She has such a great expression of distaste and such wonderful bossiness toward Jane.  Really livens things up when she's around.  A

3. Juliet Stevenson (1996 Movie). Another wonderful take on Mrs. Elton.  She is unfortunately married to the most ridiculous of all the Elton's making it harder to fully develop her own humor and character. And she's also got the worst Jane to work with, so I think she suffers a bit.  A-

4. Christina Cole (2009). She gets to play so many of these unpleasant foils! (She's also gotten to be Caroline Bingley and Blanche Ingram.) She is wonderful here as well, using basic acid as her weapon of choice.  A-


That's enough! If pressed (right) I could probably continue this discussion with thoughts on John Knightly, Mrs and Mr Weston and Robert Martin, but I think it's time to close. So... here are the tallys:

The 2009 adaptation has most of my first place ratings - with 5. The 1996 TV adaptation has two first place rankings, the 1996 Movie has one and 1972 has none. But, lets not leave it there. With a bit more analysis, we can find out exactly how these 4 adaptations rank in terms of overall casting depth! (At least as far as these 9 main starring and supporting roles are concerned). 

So, I've given these actors grades' the standard point values on a gpa scale and tallied it all up.

Points  For the grade:
4.3       A+
4.0       A
3.7       A-
3.3       B+
3.0       B
2.7       B-
2.0       C

• The 2009 Adaptation (staring Romola Garai) wins the All Around Best-Casted Production Award with a CPA* of 4.067. Well done!
• In second place, with a CPA of 3.767 is the 1996 Television adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale. 
• Third place goes to our sleeper adaptation, the 1972 BBC television production starring Doran Godwin. Wow. Its CPA is a strong 3.267.
• Even the last place, 1996 feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, gets a respectable 3.20 CPA, which is equivalent to about a B+. Not bad at all.

*Casting Points Average ! ha

Well, Emma, it has been a lot of work, but a lot of fun. Good night for now; see all you adaptations again in a year or so.

"Emma Cubed. Four Emma Adaptations -- all Acting Performances Graded" LostinBritishTV


  1. What a wonderful exercise in emma-ness. It has been so long since I've seen the 1996 movie that you make me remember to watch it again.
    Totally agree on your pick of Knightley. He had the perfect combination of sensitive and sensible. Isn't it fun to see all these actors hop around between productions? It's like Garanimals for British actors.
    Loved this post and appreciate your take on each interpretation.

  2. Haha! Granimals for British Actors! That is a perfect analogy. Thanks Anneagain!

  3. What a wonderful analysis! I love how you've broken down the characters from each of the movies.

  4. It is interesting how our opinions coincide for most characters! I would say, though, that for Emma, Kate Beckinsale nails it better than the others. Emma, at first, is not supposed to be a likeable character. Didn't Jane Austen say about her: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."?

    If Emma comes across as pleasant, then she is not what Jane Austen intended. Jane Austen often makes fun of her snobbishness, particularly when referring to the invitation from the Coles, talking about "being left in solitary grandeur". Movie makers, for the sake of the success of their film, make sure the heroine is sympathetic. They wouldn't take the risk Jane Austen took of making her disagreeable. And most actresses, in their own ways, succeeded to present a friendly Emma, though she found Robert Martin clownish and totally without air, the young Coxe ladies vulgar (as usual), and disliked visiting the Bateses for "... all the horror of being in danger of falling in with the second-rate and third-rate of Highbury, who were calling on them for ever..." Indeed, Kate Beckinsale's Emma is much closer to Jane Austen's character than the other actresses'.

    As for Romola's acting, indeed: very much juvenile. Her own character could have used some help in curing herself of her school-girl's giggle.