Emma [DVD] 
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Andrew Davies, who adapted 'Middlemarch' and 'Pride and Prejudice' for the BBC, takes on Jane Austen's 'Emma' for ITV. Kate Beckinsale stars as the eponymous heroine who is intent on finding partners for everyone - but only if she thinks they are the right coupling. Her efforts create confusion, and the outspoken Mr Knightly pours scorn on her matchmaking - although he may have ulterior motives for doing so. A lavish costume drama from ITV, this adaptation was one of the highlights of the Autumn schedules in 1996.
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Kate Beckinsale isn't terrifically beautiful here, as she wears little makeup and they've put her in ugly hats, but she has a sweet face with a hint of mischief, and she's pretty young, so she carries the role of Emma well. Mark Strong is a stellar Mr Knightley, the perfect combination of misanthropy and gentility, and it's refreshing to see a slightly dark Knightley, with the flashes of genuine anger that characterise him in the book. There's real chemistry between the two leads.
Prunella Scales is endearing as Miss Bates, Olivia Williams is a lovely Jane Fairfax, and Raymond Coulthard's Frank Churchill is dashing but smarmy and unappealing, as he should be. In fact, this adaptation is different enough to the film version to render it worthwhile. The relationship between Jane and Frank is hinted at much earlier, as is Knightley's interest in Emma.
In the book, Emma claims to be worried that if Knightley marries, her nephew Henry will be cheated out of his inheritance. Of course, she has other reasons for not wanting Knightley to marry, but it's a while before she's able to admit that. This adaptation picks up on the "poor Henry" factor, which is nice. It also begins and ends with chicken thieves, which seems odd until Emma uses it as an excuse to reconcile her father to her engagement. In this adaptation, you get a true sense of the rural location of Highbury, and the agricultural responsibilities of Donwell Abbey's landlord.
This is a quiet, understated little production, with an emphasis on realism over the slick and overly-designed costumes and interiors of the Hollywood version. Not all the performances are great, but the important ones are very satisfying, and the romance is genuine and heart-warming. The music is pretty, and the home and gardens used for Hartfield are really beautiful. I unexpectedly found myself smiling from beginning to end, except during the dystopian nightmare that is the Box Hill picnic. (My name is Emma, so when Mr Knightley says "badly done, Emma," in the book or in any adaptation, I always feel physically ill. I'm sure at least one person has said that to me in my lifetime.) In this version, Mark Strong's voice breaks while he's admonishing Emma, and you get a true sense that he's as grieved as he is angry. It's heartbreaking.
The misery is short-lived. When Mr Knightley came nervously charging down the steps at the end to find Emma in the garden, my heart skipped a beat. If you've never seen this, or you didn't like it the first time, give it another go. I watched it today, and it was a good day.