Emma - The title character is played in the 96 version by Gwyneth Paltrow and by Romola Garai in the 09 mini-series. I can't say that I feel either of them are the "perfect" Emma Woodhouse. While Paltrow had the easy grace and dignity I would have expected from a lady of Emma's situation, I found myself liking Garai's personality a bit more. Paltrow just came across as a bit too haughty for the part and I have never felt Emma was haughty. Neither really "looked" like I have always pictured Emma, either; Garai didn't seem quite good looking enough and Paltrow seemed a bit too ... ethereal. Though in the end I think I'd pick Paltrow's Emma because, on occasion, Garai's seemed a bit ... clownish.
Mr. Knightley - I'm sorry but for me there can be no other Knightley except Jeremy Northam. Johnny Lee Miller played the role in the 09 series and he did a fine job but for me, Northam IS Knightley. Everything about his performance says "Regency British Gentleman." The manners and behaviors of a 19th century English gentleman come so easily to him that you would think he was born in the time period. Miller's portrayal, while good, seemed a bit too rough and stiff for my taste.
Harriet Smith - This was really a toss up for me. Toni Collette played the part in the 96 movie and Louise Dylan had the role in the 09 mini series. I actually liked both of these ladies but for different reasons. Dylan's Harriet looked more like the Harriet I envision from Austen's description but I positively LOVE Collette's portrayal of the character. Dylan's portrayal just got on my nerves occasionally and Collette just didn't LOOK like Harriet. If I could mesh the two I think we'd have the perfect Harriet Smith.
Jane Fairfax - Again, this was a bit of a toss up for me but I think in the end I actually prefer Polly Walker's Jane in the 96 movie over Laura Pyper's portrayal in the 09 version. To me, Walker had the beauty and grace that Jane is said to have had (over and over and over), though she seems a bit old for the role. Pyper's personality was very sweet and genteel, like I would expect from Jane, but she just didn't have the beauty that Jane was supposed to possess.
Miss. Bates - Hands down I prefer Sophie Thompson's (did you know she's Emma Thompson's sister?) Miss. Bates in the 96 movie over Tamsin Greig's in the 09 series. Thompson's portrayal was spot on in my opinion. She had the sweetness and silliness of the character down perfectly. Greig's version did not have the lightness about it and it really left me a bit cold. In fact, in the famous scene where Emma insults her at the Box Hill picnic, my heart aches for Thompson's Miss. Bates while I feel absolutely nothing for Greig's.
Frank Churchill - Chalk one up for the 09 series here! While I like Ewan McGregor, his portrayal of Frank in the 96 movie is almost so bad it hurts. I don't know if was just the way the part was written but it really was laughable (though there are some scenes that I really loved). And what in the world did they do to his hair?? Rupert Evans did a good job with the part in the series. He looked the part for one and his personality seemed to fit, and while there were a few times when his attitude really annoyed me, he had the charm I'd expect from Frank.
Mrs. Weston - I really can't say which of the two I liked more. Greta Scacchi's version in the 96 movie really had the "motherly" aspect I see in Mrs. Weston and her age seemed more appropriate, though I do think she may have been a bit too good looking to have been "just a governess." She also had a grace and dignity I would expect from a lady who had been paid to teach a young girl how to be a lady. Jodhi May did a fantastic job and she looked much more like I envisioned Mrs. Weston but to me she seemed a bit too young to have been a governess for seventeen years.
Mr. Elton - I think to pick a favorite here will depend on the type of Mr. Elton you envision. If you like a slightly arrogant but slightly comical Mr. Elton, then Alan Cumming's portrayal in the 96 movie will be to your liking. Cumming did a wonderful job with the role though his version is much more humorous and you can't quite take him seriously sometimes (I LOVE the scene where he sits between Emma and Knightley at the Christmas party). However, if you would prefer Mr. Elton to be oozing arrogance and come across as almost creepy, then Blake Ritson's version in the 09 series is right up your alley. I honestly think I prefer Alan Cumming's Mr. Elton for the main reason that I find Ritson's just too creepy to watch! His arrogance is sickening while Cumming can make you laugh at him.
Mrs. Elton - While both actresses did a fine job with the role, I'm going to have to go with Christina Cole's version in the 09 series over Juliet Stevenson's more comical portrayal in the 96 movie. While I LOVED Stevenson's comical Mrs. Elton I think Cole's portrayal is much more accurate in her arrogance and bossiness. She does a splendid job as coming across as an overbearing, arrogant, selfish Mrs. Elton, which I always envisioned when I read the novel (I could use a much more colorful adjective to describe how she appears in the movie, which is spot on for Mrs. Elton, but I never know who might be reading my blog!). Cole's Mrs. Elton also has the look and age I would expect.
Scenery - This goes to the 09 series because it just shows so much more. The scenery in the 96 version were beautiful - what little you actually saw - but there is just so much more included in the 09 series. I really loved seeing more of the homes where the different characters lived; Donwell Abbey in the 09 version is exactly what I would have pictured (though I did prefer the Hartfield that is shown in the 96 movie). I think showing more helps a modern audience grasp the times so much better.
Storyline - I believe I have to give this to the 09 series simply because it shows so much more of the story than the 96 movie. Yes, I know the 96 movie had to fit the whole story into two hours, and they did a fine job with it, but there was so much that was left out that is just fun to read in the novel. The mini-series was able to include so much more of Austen's original story and gave some characters (which had been virtually left out of the 96 movie) new life, namely John and Isabella Knightley. I do have to say that some of the individual lines from the 96 movie were fantastic (Northam's wonderful and powerful "Badly done, Emma! Badly done" for one). I also liked the opening of the series where they show how the three "children" (Emma, Frank, and Jane) came to be in their respective situations.
So there you have it. My run down of the two versions I have seen. Looking at it, it seems that I prefer more of the actors and actresses in the 96 version but I like the actual storyline and scenery from the 09 version. I'd say its pretty much a draw for me, though I do think I like the 96 movie better overall. Both movies had good points and bad points and in the end, each viewer is going to have their own reasons for liking or disliking one or the other.