DVD Review: Emma (1996 TV)

“Dear Emma bears everything so well”

Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Emma for the television may have suffered by being released in the same year as the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film version but it is infinitely superior, a much better observed version blessed with an excellent cast, many of whom have gone on to bigger things indeed. Emma herself is played by Kate Beckinsale, Mr Knightley is the recently-returned-to-our-stages Mark Strong, Samantha Morton is the willing Miss Smith and the ever-superb Olivia Williams stars as the inscrutable Miss Fairfax.

Star-spotting aside, it really works as a piece of drama. There’s a real warmth behind the whole affair which keeps it entirely engaging, Beckinsale’s Miss Woodhouse is the personification of charm and her gaucheness feels genuinely couched in innocence as she leads Morton’s Harriet a merry dance with her misguided match-making and eventually learns more about the world than her Highbury blinkers ever allowed. And Mark Strong’s pragmatically strong (ba-dum-tish) Knightley is a perfect match for her, practical in every sense as a hands-on landlord.

Diarmuid Lawrence’s production also benefits from an astutely chosen supporting cast. Olivia Williams is hugely beguiling as Jane Fairfax, hiding her true situation behind a mask of propriety, Raymond Coulthard’s Churchill is rightfully caddish, Prunella Scales’ elderly Miss Bates has a perfect level of fragility to make Emma’s wounds cut even deeper and Dominic Rowan and Lucy Robinson form a cracking double act as the Eltons, her snobbery brilliantly observed partnered with his instinctive haughtiness.

It just looks and feels right, the edits feeling natural and the sweep of the whole piece is excellently judged. Of the two shorter Emmas, I’d definitely recommend this one. 

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