TBT: Emma With Gwyneth (1996)


I recently was in an Austen-y frame of mind (couch, PJ’s, and dogs may have been involved) and so decided it was time to fire up one of my comfort objects. I was shocked to discover that Netflix has almost NO Austen adaptations — WTH? So despite it being my least favorite adaptation of this novel, I went ahead and re-watched 1996’s feature film Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. I was impressed that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, and I did find some redeeming qualities. But I also remembered many of my problems with the film, so let’s run down the good and the bad!

Emma (1996): The Bad

Doing bad first, because I’m the good cop around here…

While Paltrow is actually a talented actress and captures Emma’s elegance very well, and also doesn’t suck at an English accent or read as super modern, I just find her too sophisticated for the role. Emma is rich, yes, but she’s also provincial and the whole plot thread is about her growing up and learning about the world (and herself). Gwyneth just comes off as “play acting” in a not-good sense, not in that she’s wooden or anything, just that she seems like she’s pretending to be naive.

Emma (1996)

Gwyneth Paltrow: very elegant, too sophisticated.

Toni Collette is faaaaaaabulous, and I like her characterization of Harriet Smith. You can see that she’s sweet, a little dim, and the perfect project for Emma to take under her wing. That being said, I got irritated all over again that Collette is portrayed as pudgy (for example, no corsets or no bust support which makes her look floppy and uncouth) and is obviously NO competition for Emma. First, don’t fuck with Muriel (as in Wedding). Second, Harriet has to be vaguely possible as a match for Knightley or the big climax doesn’t work.

EMMA 1996

I’m sorry, I AM Muriel on some levels, so Toni Collette = love.

Obviously things have to be cut for the feature-film length, but minor characters suffer for it. Miss Bates isn’t developed enough to annoy us, so Emma seems extra bitchy.

Emma (1996)

Sophie Thompson (sister of Emma) is great at comedic roles.

Meanwhile, shouldn’t-be-minor characters like Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) and Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker) are barely in the film — Jane especially. I think she gets like 3 lines!

Emma (1996)

Also, hellooooo pointy bustline! Is this the 1950s?

Emma’s hair is up, thank god, but it often annoyed me in being too scraped-back to suit Paltrow’s head:

Emma (1996)

Getting all gell’ed up…

Emma (1996)

A better silhouette…

Emma (1996)

These hanging curls annoyed me in a daytime setting.

And finally, there were an AWFUL LOT of short sleeves and low necklines for day! WAY too many! Many of Emma’s dresses in particular just read as T-shirt-y, which, no.

Emma (1996) Emma (1996)


Emma (1996): The Good

Jeremy Northam. ROWR. Although while I can’t find a good pic to demonstrate, his pants could have stood to be tighter.

Emma (1996) Emma (1996)

Greta Scacchi did a lovely job as Mrs. Weston, and I liked the amount of screen time she got.

Emma (1996)

There could have been EVEN MORE Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton, because he is great, but I firmly declare that Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton is my FAVORITE version of the character!

Emma (1996)

“I do not profess to be an expert in the field of fashion (though my friends say I have quite the eye) but I can tell you, there is a shocking lack of satin!”


What’s your thoughts on the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

38 Responses

  1. Rhonda Stannard

    I wouldn’t even consider watching this again. I thought Gwyneth was terrible as Emma. Of course, I’ve never forgiven her or the Academy for her win as best actress for Shakespeare in Love. As a side note, I never have to look for my favorite Austen films as I own them all!

  2. Saraquill

    I remember watching it in theaters, but not the film itself. I’m not sure what it says about the production.

    Now that you pointed it out, the lack of fichus and chemisettes look weird.

  3. ladylavinia1932

    I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you at all.

    This is not the best adaptation of “EMMA”. I thought Douglas McGrath made the mistake of focusing a bit too much on Harriet Smith and not enough on Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. The 1996 version with Kate Beckinsale made the opposite mistake of focusing too much on Frank and Jane, and not enough on Harriet. I thought the two television miniseries from 1972 and 2009 were better adaptations.

    But I still found this adaptation very enjoyable to watch. And if I must be honest, I think Paltrow is the best on screen Emma Woodhouse I have ever seen.

  4. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Isn’t this the adaptation with the comedy dancers? (basically the very tall lean one dancing with a very short, very round, very bouncy partner?) if so, that’s basically all I remember about it because those poor dancers really looked like they’d been dumped in for everyone else to laugh down their noses at….

  5. Mr Elton

    I couldn’t agree more. Still enjoyable and visually quite stunning, if you can stand Gwyneth Paltrow (I do) and Ewan McGregor (am afraid I don’t). Knightley and Miss Taylor are terrific, Mr and Mrs Elton are fabulous (duh!) and Miss Bates is funny/sweet/annoying.

  6. Christy Jenkins

    I’m stuck at home in bed with this horrible flu (worst I’ve ever felt, even after two doses of Tamiflu), and you have inspired me to watch this. I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever seen the Paltrow version. Anyway, it wll kill two hours.

  7. Pina

    I don’t have the book with me right now, but isn’t Emma supposed to be the paragon of good health, and her robust good looks is often contrasted with Jane Fairfax’s more delicate, ethereal beauty? Gwyneth Paltrow looks very thin and fragile. She is very pretty, but this isn’t Emma.

    • Kendra

      I’ve only read the book once (duck), but yeah. While I love Polly Walker, she’s definitely not ethereal in this. And, she reads as about 10 years older than Emma, which means that the whole “Emma really should be friends with Jane instead of Harriet” text/subtext isn’t there at all.

  8. Natalie Ramirez Weyermuller

    It was my first introduction to Austen, I saw it as a preteen and never knew Emma was supposed to be young and naive. I fell IN LOVE with Mr. Knightley and still think Jeremy Northam is the best – EVERYTHING.

    After seeing other adaptations I with there was more Jane in this version. But I guess you just always have a soft spot for your first. That and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley. It’s enough for me!

    • Kitty

      Same for me! This was my first intro to Emma and I love Gwyneth in the role and the mannered, comedic tone was well done imo, although I now understand it’s weaknesses

  9. MrsC (Maryanne)

    But, what about her never, ever wearing a hat or bonnet or pelisse or basically any outdoor garments at all outdoors but a shawl??!! And that moment when Toni Collette collapsed into her lap. SO UNCOOL. These are people who are meant to be great friends but don’t use first names. It just felt terribly like a Californian girlfriends flick that happened to be in Regency costumes for a lark.
    Excellent point however about GP – she is too old in every way. Looks it, feels it and is too grown up and sophisticated, but too casual as well. Which is the sort of behaviour of VERY rich people indeed. Like the Bingleys!

    • Kendra

      Yeah, that’s probably another reason why all of the women’s clothes (especially Emma’s) felt so t-shirt-y and casual to me. It was very like “oh yeah, I threw this simple thing on and ran out of the house!” And the lack of headwear and outerwear is totally an issue. SO MUCH BARE SKIN.

  10. Kate D

    I have a soft spot for this version because it was my first Emma and one of my earlier Austen movies (and Mr. and Mrs. Elton are so great!). My favorite is the Romola Garai version; she is perfect as Emma and I will always choose to watch that miniseries over this movie. To my eternal shame, I have not yet seen the Kate Beckinsdale Emma- one of the few Austen adaptations I have left to see! It’s high on my To Watch list!!

    • Kendra

      I was very surprised to like the Garai version as much as I did — I thought it would be redundant, but I liked how much time they took to tell the story, it definitely brought out elements that got cut/sidelined in other versions. DEFINITELY watch the Beckinsale version, if for no other reason than THE HATS ARE SO GOOD!

  11. Kaye Dacus

    Emma is my least-favorite JA novel, so I don’t really have a favorite film adaptation (though I do love Mark Strong as Knightley in the other version that came out around the same time as this one).

    The one thing you didn’t mention I thought for sure you’d bring up: the dead cat on top of Ewan McGregor’s head! That wig is TERRIBLE!!!

  12. Nzie

    I haven’t seen this one or read the book (adopts defensive stance) (I probably will eventually; I’m just a bit tired-stressed-lazy). But I wanted to let you know that the Romola Garai Emma is on Amazon Prime, along with P&P from 1995, so if you have that subscription, it’s available. Which reminds me I should pick it back up; I was enjoying it but I’m turning into some sort of weird non-binger for reasons I don’t understand myself.

  13. Linda

    Ewan’s ewww! wig. I don’t know of a worse male ingenue man-wig offhand, especially a production with some money behind it. And Emma’s push up flotation devices when her carriage is stuck in the stream. Ack. But it does have wonderful moments.

  14. ctrent29

    I get the feeling that many of these criticisms are more about bashing Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I know is disliked by a lot of people, than it is about the quality of this film or her performance.

  15. Charity

    This was my favorite movie for about a decade and is still in the top five. It’s witty, it’s romantic, it’s beautiful to look at, and the music is wonderful. I really, really like Paltrow as Emma. She has the right amount of snide condescension and total bitchiness, and her chemistry is terrific with Jeremy Northam’s Knightley — who, by the way, is much less of a jackass in this than in most other adaptations. Is that entirely inaccurate? Don’t care. Give me a Knightley who delivers sharp criticisms with a twinkle in his eye and a flirt every day of the week. I have long envied that simple blue dress she wears outside sewing with Harriet. I’m also a bit peeved this isn’t on proper US Blu Ray yet, so I can admire everything in HD. The studio needs to stop re-releasing things I care nothing about, and get on remastering this!!

  16. Janette

    I did rather enjoy this at the time. I was not able to compare it to the Beckinsale version as I don’t think that ever made it down to Oz. (I have yet to see it) Emma is one of my least favourite Austen stories, perhaps because I had to keep studying it at school and at Uni. Unlike other Austen characters Emma is not “relatable” in any way. I never warmed to Fanny Price but at least I could feel some sympathy for her. Emma just irritated me and certainly Gweneth Paltrow did nothing to change that. Also I thought that Muriel was too Muriel. Northam did not convince me as Knightley. He is too self assured and creamy. Even though the same could be said of Johnny Lee Miller he did bring a degree of suffering to the role which made him more likeable. (Though it has been many years since I saw the GP Emma so my memory may be misleading) Romola Garai actually make me like Emma and care about her even though she was a bitch to poor Fran. (Black Books) so the 2009 version is by far and away my favourite Emma though it will never be up there with my favourite Austens’.

  17. tanya2austin

    I agree with everyone’s comments about the dearth of sleeves and fichus for daytime and outdoor wear. I know that a “real” Regency daydress isn’t the most flattering to modern eyes (what with the high necklines and long sleeves and drawstrings for closures) but at least make a nod to historical accuracy by adding accessories! The lack of gloves and headwear outdoors is just jarring– people covered their heads when outside, gosh darn it! They all look like they’re going to evening parties with their low necklines and fancy hairdos…

  18. Lynn

    Not gonna lie… my absolute favorite Emma adaptation is Clueless!! And the weird thing about those dresses, to me, is how EVERYWHERE the stupid baby doll t-shirts were – this just seemslike a full length version, as opposed to a true Empire-waist style.

    • MoHub

      Agreed. I first saw Clueless without being aware in advance that it was modernized Emma. Five minutes in, I was shouting, “OMG! It’s Jane Austen’s Emma!” In its way, it’s the best version ever.

    • misat0

      I was going to say that, Clueless is my favourite Emma adaptation!
      by adapting it to another (modern) context, I think they kept the book’s spirit to a tee.

  19. The Costume Database

    I agree with most of the comments, it’s too much bare arms, bare skin, too much décolleté / t-shirty and being outside without bonnets, it’s all too clean. But, getting past all that, I did enjoy the pace and comedy of the film.

    • jeanne brodie

      I agreed with the hair comments. Did she cut her hair during filming? Were there different hairdressers? I like the puffy looks best. IMDB details how many costumes were used in many other films.

  20. Sukhavati (@OmSukhavati)

    I figured that this being a Hollywood adaptation, as opposed to the BBC or Working Title Films, meant the anachronisms in costuming and hair. I read somewhere that the studio complained to the director that Gwynnie’s original costumes made her look fat (can you imagine?), so the silhouettes were altered somewhat. I love Jane Austen, but Emma is not my favorite of her novels. I really disliked the character in the book, and this version made her more palatable to me. I thought mother and daughter Sophie Thompson and Phylidia Law were excellent as the Bates women, and Alan Cumming was spot on as the pompous Mr Elton. Totally agree with you about Jeremy Northam – crushed on him for years after this film. Love the scene with the side-long glance when Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are dueting at the Cole’s party. Paltrow’s costumes and hairstyles seemed slightly off, but again – Hollywood studio. I’ve seen other adaptations where the ladies costumes seemed more authentic, but I wish that studios would stop casting these refugees from the catwalk and put more real looking stage actresses in the period pieces. I loved Jeremy Northam’s straw hat in the proposal scene – he did appear the country gentleman. I can watch this film over and over again for him alone.

  21. Chris

    ‘I ‘ll thank you not to shoot my dogs’. Great line, great delivery. JN 😍