For today’s Weekend Watcher review I’m comparing two film versions of the Jane Austen novel Emma.
The Gwyneth Paltrow version was released way back in 1996 and starred Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley. The Anya Taylor-Joy version came out in 2020 and features Johnny Flynn as Emma’s sparring partner.
The Paltrow version is one of my favourite films, so when my daughter bought me the Taylor-Joy one on DVD I knew it would have its work cut out to spark the same response.
I’m not closed to other versions of Emma, however. Clueless is also one of my favourite films.
One of the things I liked best about Paltrow’s Emma is how the cinematography contributes to a sense of the passing seasons and the structure of rural life being fixed by the time of year.
Emma’s discussion with Harriet about her crush on a farmer and who might replace him in her affections takes place in a wonderful set full of ripe apples where the two are catching butterflies.
Several months later, Emma’s carriage ride with Mr Elton absolutely captures the festive period and the inclement weather that facilitates the confusion that leads to them unexpectedly being alone.
The film is replete with images of country life in varying seasons. England is shown at its best.
While the Taylor-Joy version attempts the same feel of the seasons passing this didn’t speak to me as effectively.
The locations felt far more as if the scenes all took place around the same time. I wasn’t convinced it was winter when Isabella and John returned from London to spend Christmas with Emma.
This didn’t matter very much, because the Taylor-Joy version had many other things to recommend it.
Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley was a revelation. I love Jeremy Northam’s acting, but I’ve never quite been convinced by his role as the leading man in a romance. I’m not sure why.
By contrast, I had no difficulty suspending disbelief that Flynn’s Knightley loved Emma deeply. My only reservation is that Mr Knightley is supposed to be fifteen years older than Emma, which isn’t something I could see in Flynn.
That didn’t really matter. In all other respects his performance was wonderful.
One of the aspects of Paltrow’s Emma I liked most was that virtually all the supporting characters, of which there are many, were likeable.
Some were ridiculous, like Miss Bates. Others were tricky and not entirely trustworthy, like Ewan McGregor’s Frank Churchill, but you could always see the good and the bad blended in everyone bar Elton and his wife.
Juliet Stevenson’s Mrs Elton was superb. In the Taylor-Joy version, however, I felt that the supporting characters were more like pantomime villains. This was especially true of Frank Churchill, although Jane Fairfax was sympathetically sketched.
The effect of this was to bring the attention back to Emma and to Knightley. This was simply a different style of approach between the two films, and I enjoyed the variety that brought.
My favourite part of the Taylor-Joy version was Bill Nighy as Mr Woodhouse. He was a more developed character here and Nighy’s performance was hilarious.
The other Woodhouse daughter, Isabella, was also different; here she was more like her father in her anxiety and hypochondria; their interactions were brilliant.
What matters most in a new film version of an old classic is that it brings something fresh in interpretation alongside strong performances. The 2020 version of Emma achieved this in spades, giving me something new and different to enjoy when I want to see a film version of a much-loved classic novel.
Many thanks for reading my review of Emma with Anya Taylor-Joy and Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow.
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