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Jane Austen's Emma (1996)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Jane Austen's Emma (1996)
United Film and Television/Chestermead/Arts and Entertainment Network/Meridian for ITV, tx. 24/11/1996
110 min, colour
DirectorDiarmuid Lawrence
ProducerSue Birtwistle
ScriptAndrew Davies
From the Novel byJane Austen
PhotographyRemi Adefarasin
MusicDominic Muldowney

Cast: Kate Beckinsale (Emma Woodhouse); Samantha Morton (Harriet Smith); Mark Strong (Mr Knightley); Bernard Hepton (Mr Woodhouse); Prunella Scales (Miss Bates); Olivia Williams (Jane Fairfax)

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After one success with her governess, spoilt Emma Woodhouse attempts to play matchmaker to her new best friend Harriet. But is Emma helping or hindering Harriet's chances of happiness? And will Harriet's happiness result in Emma losing her chance of love?

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Emma is the second Jane Austen entry in scriptwriter Andrew Davies' impressive catalogue of literary adaptations, following the more celebrated Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1994). Davies' famed ability to accentuate a novel's most audience-friendly components is complemented by director Diarmuid Lawrence's snappy pacing.

In many respects a coming-of-age novel like Austen's Northanger Abbey, Emma shares a particular stylistic flourish with the earlier adaptation of Northanger Abbey (BBC, 1987). Both feature 'dream sequences' in which the heroine imagines either herself or another (in Emma's case, often Harriet) with a potential suitor. These interludes serve to exteriorise the heroines' thoughts, while revealing their romantically naive natures.

If Davies' Pride and Prejudice was sexed-up Austen, Emma is his political Austen. Davies accentuates the intricate social hierarchy that permeates all of Austen's novels, but particularly Emma. At the outset, Emma is a naïve but romantic snob: she ignores new friend Harriet's illegitimate birth, believing her to be a gentleman's daughter, but scorns Mr Martin (Harriet's suitor), because he is a farmer. Much of Austen's novel traces how spoilt and manipulative Emma Woodhouse learns the compassion and kindness her social position should engender and becomes worthy of love.

In Davies' adaptation, Emma becomes not only a reformed person, but a reformed snob. He appends a new ending, which shows Emma welcoming Mr Martin as Harriet's fiancée and inviting the couple to visit her; this is in direct contrast to the novel, where her friendship with Harriet fades. Like the Pygmalion-esque Mr Knightley, Davies is trying to improve Emma by making her more palatable to a less class-conscious society. Admittedly, the new ending does successfully complete the journey of social consciousness that Emma has undergone. However, for viewers familiar with both the novel and the culture of that time, this updating may be jarring.

Emma is Davies at his playful best. Using one of the novel's core themes - that appearances can be deceiving - as his inspiration, he repeatedly constructs comic scenes based around this premise. Thus Harriet and Emma frequently talk at cross-purposes resulting from having used the pronoun 'he' instead of a name; Emma mistakenly believes that Mr Elton loves Harriet when he is in fact trying to propose to her; and there is a scattering of ironic visual comments, such as the exclaiming over the 'naturalness' of strawberry-picking, as servants place cushions upon the ground for the ladies to kneel upon.

Louise Watson

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Video Clips
1. Mr Martin (4:40)
2. An unwanted surprise (2:45)
3. The picnic (4:05)
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McGregor, Ewan (1971-)
Morton, Samantha (1977-)
Scacchi, Greta (1960-)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)
Stevenson, Juliet (1956-)
Strong, Mark (1963-)
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