We are then very quickly taken through Emma and Harriet's interactions with Mr. Elton—we get no "courtship" puzzle to encourage them—and after just 20 minutes we are at the start of the Weston party, where Emma finally realizes that Elton has been courting her, not Harriet. Despite skimming over a lot of the Elton story, the film does take time to show Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley discussing Emma's relationship with Harriet (he thinks it is a bad idea), and throw in the line from the book that Mr. Knightley should like to see Emma "in love, and in some doubt of a return." I don't know why more adaptations don't use this line—probably because it suggests that Mr. Knightley is not thinking of Emma as a match for himself at this point— but I like it because it's nice ironic foreshadowing.
In any case, we swiftly get Emma's soon-broken vow to stop matchmaking, our first visits from Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, the introduction of Mrs. Elton, and the events on Box Hill. The strawberry party is left out entirely (or else mashed together with Box Hill so thoroughly I didn't recognize it), which is no great loss, as the two events are rather similar. We do get a scene of Jane Fairfax weeping in a field, cluing us in to the revelation to come. However, in this version we don't see Emma really encourage Harriet in her new infatuation, which Emma thinks is for Frank Churchill but is really for Mr. Knightley, no comment that "raising your thoughts to him is a mark of good taste." This may seem like a minor quibble, but without it, Emma's discovery that she and Harriet love the same man loses a bit of effectiveness.
All is resolved happily, of course, and we get an added coda not in the book: a harvest dinner in which Emma gives an invitation to Robert Martin and sisters and gets to dance again with Mr. Knightley. The final scene is of more chicken raiding—so crucial to getting Mr. Woodhouse to agree to the marriage, as my college professor stressed when we read the book. I won't quibble with these additions, as they help illustrate the change in Emma's character while bringing the story full circle.
So the plot condensation had some pluses and minuses. What about the casting and acting? As Emma, Kate Beckinsale—the lone brunette to play the role—conveys a real sense of youth and inexperience, and is very good at conveying Emma's interior confusion and doubt when things don't turn out the way she expects. She's probably the most likeable Emma on film, although that may not be truest to the character.
Mark Strong is brooding and attractive, but his Mr. Knightley is very angry in arguing with Emma, almost uncomfortably so. He seems better suited to Mr. Darcy than Mr. Knightley, whom Austen describes as having "a cheerful manner, which always did him good." Raymond Coulthard's Frank Churchill has much the look of Ewan McGregor's, with charm and amiability but a little less smarm (and much better hair). The jewel here is Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax, who is very good at showing subtle hints of her fondness for Frank Churchill. The screenplay also wisely includes her comment comparing the "governess trade" to the slave trade, giving her more wit than most adaptations, which make Jane as insipid as Emma thinks she is.
The one real drawback, again, is the miscasting of Harriet. Again, I remind you of Austen's description of the "very pretty" Harriet: "She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness." While Samantha Morton is a very good actress with two Oscar nominations to her credit, and as such gives Harriet the right temperament, her face is thin and sharp-featured, foxy rather than plump. Compared to Kate Beckinsale's radiantly elegant Emma, Harriet looks plain, again making it hard for me to believe that men would overlook her dubious background, or that Emma might believe she is a serious competitor for Knightley's attention.
So all in all, I think I prefer the other 1996 adaptation to this one, which doesn't have quite the wit and easiness of the Gwyneth Paltrow version. It's definitely worth a viewing, though, especially for comparison purposes. If you're at all interested in the mechanics of story, it's always a fun exercise to see what someone thinks are the essential elements when they create their adaptation.