Well done, Mr. Northam! A Review of the Movie Emma

27 Jul

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.

My favorite adaptation of my favorite novel by my favorite author

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.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma and Jeremy Northam as Knightley

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.

Emma and Harriet

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.

An equal partnership

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.

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!

Jeremy Northam, the definitive 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.”

'Badly done, Emma, badly done'

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.

Miss Austen would approve

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).

by LauraP

30 Responses to “Well done, Mr. Northam! A Review of the Movie Emma”

  1. henrysmummy2003 July 27, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

    Thank you so much, Laura, for this wonderful review. xxx I love the idea of Jane Austen dropping me an email asking if she can post here!!

    • LauraP July 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

      You’re very welcome, Gill. I’m glad you liked it!

      I am glad however that Jane Austen isn’t around to post here. Her observations would put mine to shame!

      • henrysmummy2003 July 27, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

        I think I would definitely have to hang up my own keyboard! In her absence, I am delighted by your observations! Thanks again.xxx

  2. Mary July 27, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    Dear Laura, this essay on Emma is very good. Thanks for your hard work. Well done!

    • LauraP July 27, 2010 at 9:52 pm #

      Thanks for reading it, Mary! Writing about our Jeremy is never hard work, though.

  3. Ansie July 27, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    Thank you so much Laura for this excellent review. You’ve brilliantly articulated why I love the film so much. Like you, Jane Austen is my favorite author and Emma is my favorite book, although Pride and Prejudice is a close second!

    I first read Emma many years ago while on a plane returning from a month spent in England. I’d been to Bath and picked up a copy of the book. I finished the book long before we landed in Toronto. I just loved it. I was so delighted when the film came out because it brought back so many wonderful memories of my trip to England. The film is a lovely, little gem and I agree – I’m sure Jane Austen would be pleased.

    • LauraP July 27, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

      Thank you, Ansie! Always good to find another Jane Austen fan!

      P&P and Emma and Persuasion used to switch places as my favorite JA novel, but Emma’s pulled out ahead in recent years. Every time I read it I see something different in it.

      What a lovely association to have between the film, the novel and your trip! I’ve never been to Bath, but I did visit the Jane Austen house in Chawton. It was a bit like a pilgrimage, that visit. I have very fond memories my time there.

  4. Gayle Cooley July 27, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    Well done Laura!! Fabulous review and a super great read!

    I agree, I think if Jane were alive today she’d be as much of a Jeremyite as the rest of us are, how could she possibly help herself?

    • LauraP July 27, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

      Very nice of you to say, Gayle.

      Yes, Jane would definitely be one of us. Based on the heroes she created in her novels, I think she had excellent taste in men!

  5. Linnigee July 27, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Beautifully written, Laura. Thanks.

    • LauraP July 29, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

      Thank you, Linnie! :-))

  6. Vicki Hopkins July 28, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    Nicely done! Great piece.

    • LauraP July 29, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

      Glad you liked it, Vicki! Thanks for reading.

  7. Robyn Wildman July 28, 2010 at 6:18 am #

    Well expressed Laura! I agree with all you said. Jeremy did convey the ideal Regency gentleman! No question this is the best of the Emma’s films so far. It has only one problem It isn’t a mini-series!

    • LauraP July 30, 2010 at 12:02 am #

      I agree, Robyn, that it should have been a miniseries. I would have liked at least another hour!
      Thanks for your comment!

      • barus February 3, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

        Exactly! I have thought it many times… or at least some deleted scenes… there must be some!!

  8. Martina July 28, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Laura, this review is really great, very well done! There is nothing to add, you express the very special feelings of this lovely movie wonderful!
    And on account of J.A. ‘physical describtion’ of Mr. Knightley I only want to quote this out of the book: “There he was, among the standers-by, where he ought not to be; …so young as he looked! – He could not have appeared to greater advantage perhaps any where, than where he had placed himself. His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body`s eyes; and, excepting her own partner, there was not one among the whole row of young men who could be compared with him. – He moved a few steps nearer, and those few steps were enough to prove in how gentleman-like a manner, with what natural grace he must have danced , would he but take the trouble.”
    Fortunately for us “our” Mr. Knightley did dance at last, with enormous grace and for my tast, 1,88 m is tall enough!

    • LauraP July 30, 2010 at 12:07 am #

      That’s a great description, isn’t it? And notice it’s from Emma’s point of view. Austen shows us that E’s physically attracted to Mr. K, but doesn’t know it yet.

      Thanks for reading my review, Martina! I’m happy to know you enjoyed it!

  9. Jennythenipper July 29, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    “Just so you know where I stand, this is my favorite adaptation of my favorite novel by my favorite author.”

    Yes, yes and YES!

    You’ve nailed why I love this movie so much. Jeremy carries every scene in which he plays even when he’s barely doing anything. I thought this a lot in Miami Medical, but going back and watching Emma again recently, I realized he does that here as well. Of course the archery scene is so wonderfully perfect, but so are many other small scenes. I love the scene in the conservatory when he delights in bringing Emma news and the way he relishes the word, “news” or the way in which he shifts uncomfortably as Emma and Mrs. Weston discuss whether or not he will marry Jane Fairfax.

    And you are so right about the clothes. Not only does he look good in them, he wears them correctly. I love the way he uses his walking stick as well. That is a tricky thing to get right since it is such a foreign object to modern men, I think. Some act as if it were a cane or worse, a marching baton. It is something between the two and JN not only uses it but acts with it as well, striking the ground with it when he’s frustrated or doesn’t know what to say. Sigh. I could watch this movie once a week, I think and never tire.

    I must admit that I think this version of Emma has the weakest proposal scene almost of the lot compared to the other adaptations, but it is entirely the fault of the script. JN is perfect and I admit I feel so swoony with love for his Mr. Knightley by that point it hardly matters what he says but HOW he says it.

    Also have you heard the wonderful (though sadly abridged) audio book of Emma in which JN reads all the parts. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard him imitate Miss Bates.

    • LauraP July 30, 2010 at 12:29 am #

      Good point about the walking stick, Jenny! He uses it to emphasize Knightley’s feelings, doesn’t he? I’m thinking of him whipping the grass with it in frustration as he walks away from Emma. Another example of Jeremy paying attention to the details.

      This proposal scene is definitely the farthest from Austen’s. We may have to agree to disagree about it, but I too am so delirious with love for both Knightley and Jeremy at that point in the film, that my judgment may be a little cloudy! 😉

      I have to admit I have not heard his reading of the book. From the other audiobook of his I’ve listened to, I can only imagine how funny his Miss Bates is!

      Thanks for reading–and thanks for your comments, Jenny!

    • barus February 3, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

      Yes, Jenny, you’re perfectly right with the walking stick:) He looks as if he was born with it. But I must disagree with the proposal scene. Or partly: I think that Emma’s lines could have been better written but I think that Mr. Knightley’s repliques are the best I’ve ever heard… that is, maybe not but Jeremy Northam makes them sound so. I feel butterflies in my belly every time I watch this scene and hear his voice saying all those beautiful things…
      On the other hand I must admit I usualy don’t like the proposal scenes from most of other Austen’d adaptations. It seems to me that the screenwriters and actors don’t know what to do with them… but that’s only my opinion and I think we can safely agree that Jeremy Northam is the best:)

  10. Robin August 7, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    Oh my…I can certainly agree that I was “Jeremyized” once I watched Emma. I finally got it from Netflix after finishing the novel and as soon as I saw JN’s Mr. Knightley…


    I have never seen a man look so gorgeous in those Regency clothes (or comfortable). The scene at the ball where he asks Emma who she’s going to dance with and his quiet comment as they’re heading to the dance floor…just made my heart go all fluttery!

    I still haven’t returned it to Netflix (haha); I have watched it several times and can’t stand to part with it. Guess I need to purchase this one! After seeing it I can’t imagine watching anyone else play the role of Mr. Knightley. I am also glad I saw this movied after The Tudors…I don’t think I could have watched my Mr. Knightley meet Thomas Moore’s end.

    • henrysmummy2003 August 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Robin, it’s a wonderful movie, and Jeremy plays Knightley so wonderfully well. I can quite understand you hanging onto it!

    • LauraP September 10, 2010 at 12:56 am #

      Welcome to the ranks of the Jeremyized Ones, Robin! Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your comment, but I’m very glad you enjoyed Emma and the only Mr. Knightley the world will ever need. 🙂

  11. barus February 3, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Hi Laura, thanks for this essay, I enjoyed it from the top to the bottom. I think I wasn’t breathing very much while reading it. And few times I laughed like a silly dot because I realized that I simply adore him. You’re right – no other actor have ever had such an impact on me like Jeremy Northam.
    I of course have loved him since Emma (I was about 12) and as years were passing by and there were some new adaptations or old ones (I’d just discovered), I really liked them and even some of them (P&P) were my favourite for some time but I always returned to this version of Emma and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley. Every time. And I love Colin Firth as Darcy and J.L. Miller wasn’t bad at all but Jeremy Northam is simply one and only. You know, I always watch some film with him and see how real he seems, how excelent actor and handsome man he is and I always wonder why everybody is not madly in love with him, why everybody doesn’t want him in their films, because I really haven’t EVER seen anyone acting so good. Or I just can’t remember… but as I wrote on some other blog: I believe him every word, every look…

    • LauraP February 8, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my review of Emma!

      I couldn’t agree with you more: Jeremy really IS the one and only! I smiled when I read that you wonder why everyone isn’t madly in love with him. To me that’s the biggest mystery of all: how could anyone NOT be in love with the man? Lol!

      Seriously though, he is a wonderful actor and is completely believable whether he’s playing a hero or a villain or someone in between. His range as an actor is remarkable, isn’t it?

      Thanks for your comments!

  12. Jillian Chantal September 9, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Well done, indeed. A wonderful parsing of the movie and Mr. Northam’s splendor in the role. He is the ideal knight and Knightley. And, with Jeremy being a beautiful man as well as actor, it’s always a pleasure to watch this version of the film.

    • LauraP September 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

      Hi Jillian!

      Glad you enjoyed reading this post. 🙂 Jeremy’s not hard to look at, is he? Especially as Mr Knightley!

      Of the actors I’ve seen play this role, he really does come closest to the character we meet in the pages of Jane Austen’s novel. I think that’s due partially to Douglas McGrath’s insightful interpretation of the book, but mostly Jeremy’s spot-on characterization comes from his own talent and skill as an actor.

      Thanks for your kind words!


  1. Happy 50th Birthday to Jeremy Northam! « The Jeremy Northam Blog - December 1, 2011

    […] of his performances, keep me on my toes as a blogger, and excited as a fan. After seeing him as Mr. Knightley, who would ever have guessed he’d play a bug scientist fighting mutated giant cockroaches in the […]

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