With almost four hours to tell the story, we're treated to a relatively faithful telling of the story, plus lots of scenes that further develop both major and minor characters. Most important is the opening that contrasts the early childhoods of Emma, Frank Weston, and Jane Fairfax. We see all three lose their mothers, but Emma is kept at home while Frank (now Frank Churchill) and Jane are sent away from loving homes for their own good. This is a very effective contrast, and further scenes of Emma as an older child hearing Miss Bates natter on about Jane, with another nattering 7 years later, make her distaste for Jane a little more understandable.
Another added scene is of a young Emma claiming to see a future match between John Knightley and Isabella—something Mr. Knightley finds ridiculous—but she is proven right at their wedding, also shown. Although this doesn't happen in the book, it gives her self-confidence in matchmaking an added boost, especially after she foresees the wedding of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. We might find Emma a bit insufferable by now, but we also get a scene portraying Emma's loneliness after Miss Taylor marries and leaves, making her a bit more sympathetic.
With this leisurely pace, we don't even meet Harriet Smith until over 20 minutes in. We do get to see the discussion between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston over Emma's friendship with Harriet (although not the line about Knightley wanting to see Emma in love with some doubt of return, boo). He seems to agree with her advice not to press Emma about it, but when Emma helps Harriet reject Robert Martin (whom we see apply to Mr. Knightley for advice in an earlier scene), he can't help but start a big argument. At first he seems more frustrated than angry, but the discussion becomes very heated, as only true friends can argue. "Men don't want wives who argue," Knightley tells Emma, adding that "Harriet and Robert are not your dolls" and warning she will regret her meddling. As the first hour ends, we see the argument has made Emma thoughtful.
The second hour begins with the Christmas party at the Westons; the scenes are quite amusing, showing Emma's growing realization that Mr. Elton is making a play for her. As we had seen her before being very giggly with Harriet over the match, we also see her truly upset at Harriet's disappointment. There are also some very amusing moments, for instance when Emma has not received an invitation to the Coles' party and discusses it with Mr. Knightley. They have some very witty exchanges, with Knightley sometimes sarcastic in response to Emma's silliness—but always amused, never nasty.
The rest follows fairly closely to the plot of the book, but that isn't what I like best about this version. The miniseries format gives it a steady pace and depth that allows the film to portray both Emma and Mr. Knightley's growing feelings for each other. At the Coles' party, we see Emma very thoughtful as she considers Mrs. Weston's idea that Mr. Knightley gave Jane Fairfax a piano. When Emma is upset at the upstart Mrs. Elton and complains to Mr. Knightley, we see how he wishes she could get out and experience more of the world. We also see Mr. Knightley's growing jealousy of Frank Churchill—although after he dances with Emma at the ball, he shouldn't need to worry, as the scene wonderfully hints at the pair's growing feelings for each other, as do the scenes of both remembering the dance.
The casting and acting is also uniformly good, with care in all the minor roles. Jane Fairfax is quiet and reserved, as she should be, but we do see occasional hints of more as she reads Frank's letters or gets excited about the ball. We get additional scenes with the Bateses, and Miss Bates is appropriately dignified and flighty. Mr. Elton is suitably obsequious and ingratiating, while Mrs. Elton is infuriatingly interfering. And finally! We have a Harriet that looks the part, a sweet round face framed by lovely blond curls. Although she is obviously inexperienced and inferior in wit to Emma, we can also see her improvement in sense and sophistication over the film, enough that you might actually believe a sensible gentleman could overlook her background or her more polished friend.
Best of all the minor characters is Michael Gambon, better known as Professor Dumbledore in the later Harry Potter films; he is terrific as missish Mr. Woodhouse, obsessing over cake and health risks. In other versions the character can seem somewhat peevish, but Gambon shows his worry as grounded in losing the ones he loves, and we see him genuinely doting upon Emma and his family. To emphasize this, John Knightley's grumpy worrying provides an amusing counter to Mr. Woodhouse's loving concern.
Of course, the film really belongs to the two actors who play Emma and Mr. Knightley, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. I had never seen Garai in anything before, but I particularly liked her approach to the character. She made Emma able to hold her own with Mr. Knightley without seeming bratty, and really captured the combination of overconfidence and inexperience that makes the character. As for Jonny Lee Miller, he is not very tall, or darkly handsome, but I do believe he is my favorite Mr. Knightley. After all, Mr. Knightley is not supposed to be a lofty dreamboat like Mr. Darcy; he's the steady guy who's the treasure that's been under your nose for a long time but you were too stupid to see it. And as Miller plays him, we see his steadiness, his frustration (rather than anger), and his journey as he realizes the friend he has guided for so long means more to him than just a friend. I guess the Emma and Knightley in this version feel more like real, complicated people who evolve, rather than characters who follow a prescribed plot. This is the version that makes me understand why some people might find Emma their favorite Austen novel, so I recommend it if you're a fan.