I was delighted that the first film chosen for the weekly Jeremy Northam Night was Emma. It is entirely appropriate that Mr. Knightley start us off, since this is perhaps still Jeremy’s best known and most beloved role. (Yes, I hear the cries of “Sir Robert Morton! Sir Robert Morton!” But he’ll have to wait his turn.) For me personally, Emma is significant as the movie that made me sit up and take notice of this handsome and talented actor; it was my “where has this guy been all my life?!” moment. And from what I’ve been reading lately, I’m not alone in this. Seems as though quite a few of you were “Jeremyized” while watching Emma too.
Just so you know where I stand, this is my favorite adaptation of my favorite novel by my favorite author. Now, this isn’t The Jane Blog, so I won’t go into why Emma is considered Jane Austen’s masterpiece or debate her place in the canon of Western literature. There is a universe of information available about Austen, written by people with far better credentials than I have. If you’re interested, I’ve recommended several great resources below.
I also don’t want to compare and contrast the three most recent screen adaptations—the other two being the 1996 A&E Kate Beckinsale/Mark Strong version scripted by Andrew Davies and the 2009 BBC production starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller using Sandy Welch’s screenplay. To me, the mark of a great work of literature is that it admits many different interpretations. So I think all three adaptations have their merits and deserve viewing. They are all valid “readings” of the book. But it is the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and our Mr. N, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, that I believe best captures the humor and wit of the novel and the spirit of the characters created by Jane Austen.
I like this production’s light touch; it isn’t afraid to show how funny Austen’s brilliantly sharp observations of human foibles are. We have a tendency to rate as “important” only serious and somber books or films. I think this is a mistake. It seems to me that in life, truths, whether universally acknowledged or not, are as often accompanied by laughter as they are by tears.
It’s not the definitive screen Emma. To fit into the confines of a two-hour movie, it has to give short shrift to several characters (John and Isabella Knightley are almost totally gone) and omit some key scenes from the book. Most notably missing are the alphabet puzzle scene where Frank Churchill and Emma embarrass Jane Fairfax with the word “Dixon” and its follow-up scene, where Knightley suggests to Emma that there’s something going on between Frank and Jane and she in turn tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. What does remain of the story works as a coherent whole, however. Even without those scenes, we understand the characters and their motivations.
What this adaptation does best is portray the relationship between Jane Austen’s heroine and hero. Douglas McGrath has understood an essential point about these characters. Knightley chooses to spend a great deal of his time with the Woodhouses at Hartfield, and I seriously doubt it is done solely out of a sense of family obligation and respect. Nor do I think Mr. Woodhouse is the main attraction! No, Knightley enjoys Emma’s company; they consider one another to be friends. They tease each other: “Really, Mr. Knightley you are so comical you ought to perform in the town square.” And they share a private joke: “Your playing was lovely. It was…’very elegant’.” Although he is sixteen years older and therefore has more experience of life, in intelligence and wit Emma is very much his equal. The argument over Harriet Smith and Robert Martin is a well-matched one, even if Emma is the one in the wrong. It ends because Knightley walks away, not because he’s made his point. McGrath shows us the range of their relationship, not just Knightley’s frustration at Emma’s faults. When they finally realize their true feelings, it seems natural and right that these two people should love each other.
The movie is blessed with a wonderful ensemble of actors. The standouts in the cast are the ones who get the biggest laughs. I adore Alan Cumming’s silly swain of a Mr. Elton, Juliet Stevenson’s sumptuously vulgar Mrs. Elton and, most of all, Sophie Thompson’s tirelessly grateful and chattering Miss Bates. But no one really strikes a false note. Even Toni Collette only looks different from Austen’s description of Harriet Smith. Her portrayal of the naive Harriet has just the right mixture of sweetness and silliness. I may take some flak for saying this, but Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Emma has really grown on me. Described by Austen as the heroine “whom no one but myself will much like,” Emma is meant to be irritating to us, especially at the beginning of the story. (I know what some of you are thinking right now: “Well, she did a bang-up job of it!”) But I do think Gwyneth ably manages the character’s emotional journey to self-knowledge and humility.
Of course, Jeremy Northam has a great deal to do with why I prefer this version to the other two. I know I won’t get any arguments here if I say that he is film’s greatest asset. That he brought his usual intelligent and thoughtful consideration to the part of Mr. Knightley is evident in the interviews he gave at the time. One of his thoughts on Knightley reminded me that this is someone whose university degree is in English literature: …[H]e has learned to be altruistic, he has learned to be kind and selfless and for various reasons, which aren’t really explained in the book. I imagine that his life has somehow become circumscribed by duty and responsibility—so much so that he has to learn to be selfless and I think in the course of the story he has to learn to be selfish again. I hadn’t thought of Knightley in those terms, nor had I encountered anything like it in any of the literary criticism of the book I’ve read. With such insight into the character, it’s no wonder Jeremy’s is considered the definitive Mr. Knightley!
That he looks the part certainly helps, too. Jane Austen doesn’t give us much of a physical description of any of her characters, Knightley included, so it isn’t in appearance that Jeremy fits the role. (In fact, some Austenites found him to be too young, too short and too pretty. But that’s just ridiculous nitpicking, if you ask me.) No, most of Austen’s description of her hero has to do with his manner: he’s a “sensible man of seven or eight and thirty” with “a cheerful manner,” “a fine air and way of walking.” He has a “downright, decided, commanding sort of manner” and a “tall, firm, upright figure.” Emma tells Harriet “You might not see one in a hundred, with gentleman so plainly written as in Mr. Knightley.” The emphasis is Austen’s but it just as well might be mine. We know that Mr. Knightley was her favorite among her six male protagonists. His name is not an accident; in him she created her ideal English Regency gentleman. This is where Jeremy’s famous ability to “disappear” into a role comes into play. His posture, his walk, the placement of his hands, angle of his head and expressions on his face all say “perfect English gentleman.” He’s graceful yet masculine, dapper without being foppish. And every time he sits down, he elegantly flips the tails of his coat behind him! Watch other contemporary actors playing Regency characters: almost to a man they plop themselves down on their coattails without a thought. In fact, some actors in Austen adaptations look so uncomfortable it’s clear they’re wearing a costume whereas Jeremy looks so natural, you’d swear he’s been dressing this way all his life. He pays attention to details, so that unfamiliar period clothing enhances his performance instead of getting in the way. (By all means, pause here and contemplate just how to-die-for gorgeous he looks in those Regency clothes!).
Nor does unfamiliar language pose a problem. Jeremy’s experience with the wordy plays of Shakespearean and Restoration drama makes him very much at home with the dialogue of Douglas McGrath’s screenplay. And it is in the screenplay that this adaptation shines. McGrath wisely uses Jane Austen’s words as much as possible, paraphrasing the dialogue only where necessary. There is a certain otherwise-exemplary Austen adaptation that frustrates me greatly because the screenwriter seems to have a perverse need to rewrite the author’s famous lines. It’s like going to see Hamlet and hearing the melancholy Dane say: “I think I’m going to kill myself, but I can’t decide.” I’m willing to bet you’d walk out of that performance! That’s not a problem here: McGrath has a genius for finding the most memorable lines and editing out what he can’t use. When he does change Austen’s language it is either to shorten a speech, to help the flow of the words when spoken, or to update syntax or vocabulary. Occasionally, he actually improves a line. The famous “Badly done, Emma! Badly done.” was originally “It was badly done indeed!” With Jeremy’s pitch-perfect delivery—the second “Badly done” softly spoken, sad rather than angry—it becomes the most memorable sentence in the whole film. McGrath even adds in a few of his own lines that are quite Austen-worthy: “Emma, you didn’t ask me to contribute a riddle [for Harriet’s book].” “Your entire personality is a riddle, Mr. Knightley. I thought you overqualified.”
If Jane Austen were able to see this version of her novel, I think she would be pleased—although I’m sure she’d have a few snarky remarks to make about Hollywood and its machinations. Mostly, though, I think she’d ask, “Pray tell me, who is this Mr. Northam? He is quite delightful! Where else might I view his work? Such a noble profile!” Yep. Jane Austen would be thoroughly Jeremyized, too! She’d probably want to write a review for this blog.
Here’s a wonderful online resource for Austen fans:
The Republic of Pemberley will connect you to most anything in the known universe related to Jane Austen.
And here are two books to treasure:
Jane Austen: the World of Her Novels, by Deidre Le Faye (published in the US by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in 2002) Gorgeous illustrations!
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson. (Random House, 2009) Gathers essays by everyone from E.M. Forster to Amy Heckerling (the director of the movie Clueless).