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Friday Film Review: Emma (BBC)

Emma (2009)
Genre: Novel adaptation/Romance/Regency Period
Grade: B

This is the latest entry into the “Emma” canon, released in 2009 by the BBC. I guess it would be more accurate to call it a miniseries rather than a movie as it’s told in four roughly one hour parts. And while I didn’t think it would take over the place of my favorite adaptation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it.

Young, rich and more than slightly snobbish, Miss Emma Woodhouse (Ramola Garai) is the social center of the village of Highbury and convinced that she is a brilliant matchmaker. Though determined never to marry, she happily pairs everyone else off, much to the frustration of Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller) who watches her machinations and offers sage advice, which Emma rarely takes. After the marriage of her long time governess and companion (Jodhi May), Emma takes young Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan) under her wing and begins to scheme. She persuades Harriet to decline the offer of marriage from a local farmer and sets Harriet’s sights higher – first on the stuffy vicar Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson) – who secretly admires Emma instead. Then, when that falls through, on Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans), recently returned to the neighborhood after a childhood away with his aunt.

Another recent addition to the scene is Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper), niece of the silly Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig) who has extolled Jane’s virtues to Emma until Emma is heartily sick of them. Emma carelessly flirts with Frank who flirts right back. Meanwhile, the little community is ruffled by the further addition of Mr. Elton’s new, and snobby, wife (Christina Cole) who seeks to take over as the social leader. Mr. Knightley tries to warn Emma that Frank and Jane seem to have a secret attachment but Emma laughs at his warnings – that is until the two reveal their hidden engagement. It’s only now that Emma discovers that Harriet aspires not to Frank Churchill but to Mr. Knightley himself. And it’s this revelation which gets Emma to finally examine her own feelings for the man. Is there a chance for her to recover what she’s afraid she’s lost or will her actions cost her the man she now knows she loves?

There is much to love about this “Emma.” The costumes and music are wonderful and both are the subjects of special features on the discs. Instead of pale pastels, the hues are rich and vibrant for the leading characters and subdued and faded for Miss Bates as would befit clothes washed and faded out over the years. The locations are also a treat with attention paid to the estate of the wealthy Woodhouses as well as the cramped, low ceilinged rooms inhabited by the Bates ladies.

Garai, as Emma, has to carry much of the story and manages well, except for her tendency to odd facial grimaces. She’s suitably self centered and unthinking but can still convey Emma’s basic goodness and ultimate realization of what’s at stake for her heart. I didn’t think I’d care for Miller as Mr. Knightley but he won me over – for the most part. I do think that these two play their early relationship more as equals in age rather than as the 16 year difference between them should dictate.

The longer 4 hour length allows for much more exploration of the secondary characters and I understood far more about the backgrounds of Frank and Jane and why that piano should cause so much fuss. There’s more time allowed for Frank to demonstrate why Mr. Knightley should take Frank into suspicion and why he is ultimately the inferior man to Knightley. Tamsin Greig plays a wonderful Miss Bates – annoying yet obviously proud of her niece Jane then finally hurt by Emma’s thoughtless comment at the picnic. Sir Michael Gambon who plays Mr. Woodhouse is also given a great deal of screen time and I love the father/daughter relationship he has going with Garai. Look for an interview with him on the second disc.

Louise Dylan does a good job as the young and artless Harriet Smith who is more untutored rather than silly. However I find I don’t care for Christina Coles as Mrs. Elton as she seems to try too hard in the snobbery department. Evans is a good social climbing Mr. Elton and is obviously made smaller by his poor choice in a wife. Sadly I find Jodhi May thoroughly forgettable as Mrs. Weston while Robert Bathhurst is wasted as her husband since he has so little to do. A welcome change here is the larger roles for Dan Fredenburgh as John Knightley.

The longer length of the miniseries doesn’t drag as I was afraid it would. Instead it allows ample opportunity to see just how tightly knit the community would have been and how bound up the characters are in business not their own. We can see how it would be almost impossible not to meddle in the lives of those around you for sheer lack of anything else to do. At the same time, the easy ‘come and go’ relationship between Knightley, the Westons and the Woodhouses depicts long time neighbors and friends.

This is supposed to be a modernization of the novel and it’s here that I have the most problems. The courtesies that should be inbred in Emma and others are sometimes sloppily done, the deportment at the Box Hill picnic leaves much to be desired and Emma’s hysterical refusal of Mr. Knightley’s proposal is far too waterworks-y. I finished the viewing with the impression of people merely playing at the manners which would have been an unthinking part of these people.

I am by no means a Jane Austen expert and as such will sit back and await the opinions of those who have spent far more time dissecting the novel and the various filmed adaptations. I find much to recommend in this version along with a little that left me dissatisfied. But overall I am pleased with the addition. B

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

15 Comments

  1. SN
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 05:00:41

    I have never seen this version, but I do not enjoy Emma. Maybe I should watch it, because I despised Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma.
    I don’t know whether it’s because of her or because I think Emma is a truly horrid person.

    I’d see this one for Jodhi May though – I’ve loved her ever since The Last of the Mohicans (I’m was the same age as, and kind of look like Alice, so it was always my little fantasy!)!

    I’m not great Jane Austen fan, but this is not my favourite book.

  2. Alex
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 05:03:39

    I’ve never been able to get through the book. I find Emma so immensely irritating as a character that I can’t get beyond the first couple of chapters.

    I watched this mainly because I love Romola Garai. It took an awful lot of criticism from the UK press and I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy it but I really did. It’s the only version that has ever really made me understand how trapped a character Emma is and how narrow her world is.

  3. library addict
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 05:51:57

    I’ve seen the 1972 mini-series, the 1996 Kate Bekinsdale tv movie, the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow feature film and this mini-series. This is by far my favorite version.

    Romala Garai is the only one made me believe that Emma is simply misguided due to a lack of maturity. I think there are times her mannerisms are too modern, but overall I really enjoyed her performance. Kate Bekinsdale is my second favorite, though her on-screen bearing makes her Emma seem too mean-spirited through much of that version. Even though she was the youngest of the four actresses to play Emma, I think Doran Godwin actually looks the most mature. As a result her Emma comes off as more calculating. She does a good job of portraying Emma’s selfishness and cluelessness, but her manipulations seem more self-serving rather than a misguided belief she is doing it for the others’ own good. And it also seemed to me she was rather spiteful and condescending to her father, rather than doting on him and his eccentricities. She just came across as extremely cold-hearted to me, particularly in the scenes where she is convincing Harriet than Mr. Martin is not a worthy suitor and later with all the stuff about Mr. Elton. All the way through to when she insults Miss Bates on Box Hill. Gwenyth Paltrow’s portrayal of Emma seemed more lively and earnest, if still quite petulant and oblivious. Romola Garai’s portrayal made me feel very sympathetic toward Emma.

    As much as I adore Jeremy Northam in the film adaptation, Jonny Lee Miller gets the advantage of so much additional screen time. And JLM and RG had the most on-screen chemistry in any of the adaptations. I really bought the fact his Mr. Knightly and Emma are friends at the beginning. JLM does an excellent job of showing the audience how and why that friendship deepens into true love. I think both JLM and JN do a better job of balancing the whole brotherly-friendship of the beginning vs. deepening sense of love and longing with JLM getting the benefit of more screen time. I also thought they both were each allowed to bring a sense of fun and playfulness to the role. Mark Strong tries hard, and his acting is very good in many scenes, but he totally lacks chemistry with Bekinsdale in 1996 tv movie and isn’t really given all that much to do in the script. Sadly, John Carson came across to me as entirely too paternal in the first two episodes. And though I felt his performance improved in the later episodes, he was never able to convince me he was truly in love with Emma. In many scenes I thought it a stretch to say he even liked her.

    I also really enjoyed Michael Gambon’s three-dimensional performance as Mr. Woodhouse. Donald Eccles is good in the 1972 mini-series. Neither movie-length version does justice to the character IMO.

    My favorite Harriet is Debbie Bowen in the 1972 mini-series. Her performance was the best thing about that particular mini-series. I also really liked both Samantha Morton in the 1996 tv movie and Louise Dylan in the 2009 mini-series. I thought all three actresses managed to make the character shine, albeit in different ways. The normally good Toni Collette portrayed the character as too dimwitted for me in the 1996 film version.

    Laura Pyper as Jane also benefits from more adequate screen time in this version, though I think Olivia Williams does a good job with her limited part in the 1996 tv movie.

    I’ve always felt Jane deserves to end up with someone better than Frank Churchill. Rupert Evans benefits HUGELY in this production from the scene toward the end where he and Jane meet up town after his aunt has died when he spins her around. That scene – and the one where Emma scolds him outside the church when the Martins marry and he has that chagrinned look on his face – managed to convince me he actually does love Jane. None of the other adaptations ever even came close to making me believe Frank and Jane would actually be happy together.

    I do think each version is worth watching. The 1972 version is rather plodding, but Doran Godwin and John Carson have some nice moments. It is the only adaptation that has the scene where the characters discuss her calling him George – LOL. It’s really unfair to compare the cinematography or pacing of this older version with the more modern productions.

    The 1996 tv movie has some lovely cinematography and costumes. I think the middle is the best part. As much as I normally enjoy Andrew Davies’ adaptations, like with S&S, he really dropped the ball with this one. The overly PC ending certainly did not help matters. Other than a few characters, I give this one the edge over GP film in terms of casting.

    The 1996 film has wonderful costumes and cinematography as well. And it edges the tv movie for the overall script and the much better casting of Knightley.

    As much as I like the casting of certain characters in the previous productions, this production doesn’t have one actor who seems out of place. They all benefit from a script which allows each subplot to be fully developed and therefore every character is given ample time to have a character arc. I do think the fact Frank lays his head on Emma’s lap at the Box Hill scene is over-the-top and wish the Harriet/Robert relationship had been given a bit more screen time. I have other quibbles, too, but have rambled long enough.

  4. Marianne McA
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 06:40:46

    I agree with library addict – this version made me ponder Emma’s maturity as well – which made the story more palatable. Even ‘Clueless’ never made me think that Emma was basically behaving like a teenage girl, but this adaption did, and in that context the intensity of her relationship with Harriet, and the way she meddles in her life, all make much more sense.
    I don’t think I’ve reread the book since I watched this, so I don’t know if it’s legitimate to interpret the book that way, but I liked Emma herself much better in this version than in previous adaptions.

    And I do agree with you about the courtesies: I haven’t rewatched this since it was broadcast, but I do remember Mr Knightley leaning on a doorframe in a shocking way. The Mr Knightley in my head doesn’t slouch.

  5. Jayne
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 06:43:17

    @SN: I wish May had had a larger role but unfortunately there’s very little of her here.

  6. Ros
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 06:46:15

    I wanted to love this adaptation because I am a huge fan of both Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, but I am afraid I loathed it so much I stopped watching after the first couple of episodes. The dialogue was so poorly written and lacked all of Austen’s charm and wit. Also, the WAVING. And the insistence on using first names. Ugh. I think this is Austen as written by Julia Quinn.

  7. Jayne
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 06:47:43

    @Alex: I do recall how amazed everyone is that Frank travels *all the way to London!!* for something – a haircut? Anyway though the distance is laughable today it’s made plain how much greater it was seen then and thus how small were the worlds most people inhabited.

  8. Jayne
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 06:49:17

    @Marianne McA: No, Knightly shouldn’t slouch. And didn’t he flop into chairs a great deal? It just all seemed sloppy.

  9. Milena
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 08:01:24

    I have to agree with Ros; I managed to watch all of it, but it felt like a chore, instead of a joy, which Austen normally is. The lack of Austen dialogue, the slouching, the waving — all of it made the period elements seem out of place. It looks as if they wanted to make a contemporary version, but then decided that Clueless couldn’t be topped, so it stayed with contemp script in a historical setting.

  10. Elaina
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 08:53:09

    I wasn’t a huge fan of this one, and I love Emma (both the novel and character). I must admit I don’t understand the intense dislike Emma Woodhouse engenders in so many people. She’s horribly misguided but she has a good heart, and she does (eventually) learn from her mistakes. I find her charming enough that I can’t be irritated by her shenanigans for too long.

    As for this version, I felt it tried too hard to be contemporary which translated into rather awkward dialogue, and yes, the waving. Romola made the weirdest facial expressions throughout the entire series, and not to mention the wealthy Woodhouses seem to have let go of all of their servants. Miss Bates was reduced to a pathetic ghost of her character, Jane Fairfax seemed like she was going to go into conniptions each time she opened her mouth, and Jonny Lee Miller’s Knightley was rather sloppy and not the gentleman you’d expect.

    I actually prefer Gwyneth Paltrow’s version, mostly because Jeremy Northam IS Mr. Knightley for me.

  11. Isobel Carr
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 10:39:53

    If I could pluck replace Paltrow with Bekinsdale or Gari (or any number of other actresses) that would be my favortie version (must also replace Harriet Smith!).

  12. Junne
    Nov 18, 2011 @ 12:12:55

    I only saw this one version of Emma ( I hate Paltrow, so her adaptation is out, and the one with Beckinsale is a bit hard to find) and I have to say that Romola Garai won me over: she’s radiant,a great actress and more important, she’s actually gorgeous, as Emma should be. Unfortunately, I seem to notice that in some BBC period dramas the heroine is plain, even ugly ( Anne in Persuasion 2007, Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice 1995, Fanny in Mansfield Park 1999…) when the hero is swoon-worthy, and the HEA isn’t believable because he could do so much better .

  13. misty
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 01:23:52

    I must admit I don’t understand the intense dislike Emma Woodhouse engenders in so many people. She’s horribly misguided but she has a good heart, and she does (eventually) learn from her mistakes. I find her charming enough that I can’t be irritated by her shenanigans for too long.

    Many people do seem to dislike her. I’ve always found her charming and funny, but I’m curious if the age you first read Emma influences your opinion? I read it quite young, and could, in some ways, relate to how she grew up over the course of the novel. I’m not sure how well I’d like her if I were just reading the novel now, at age 28.

    I always dread the scene where she insults Miss Bates. Ridiculous perhaps, but it always makes me want to cry.

  14. msaggie
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 02:26:17

    I have watched all the versions of Emma listed by library addict except the one from 1972, and this is my favourite. I particularly liked the dance scene (and the music). I think Romola Garai is a very good Emma, and I love Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley. His Mr Knightley is less formal than Jeremy Northam’s, I agree, but that probably is done to reach today’s audience. I didn’t feel it was “Jane Austen as written by Julia Quinn” as Ros puts it. Romola Garai does make too many faces. I really liked Jodhi May in her role – she’s a very good actress. And it was nice to see Isabella and John have expanded roles. I never focussed on how Emma was very much a frog-in-a-pond, little-travelled and insular – and I wish there was a better way to convey it than to get her to go to see the sea on her honeymoon – the ending was a bit of a letdown to me – that’s probably my only big gripe.

  15. JenMcQ
    Nov 20, 2011 @ 08:27:16

    I eagerly watched this when it was shown on television, and thought it was extraordinarily well-done. Then again, I have not seen the other versions discussed here, and I *gasp* have not read Austin’s Emma. As someone who was perhaps seeing this with fresh eyes, no knowledge of character or plot, and no expectation of delivery, I was riveted, and cursed the BBC’s stealthy hook to keep me coming back by dividing it into multiple installments.

    A few folks have commented here on Emma’s unlikeability. I did not find Emma an unlikable character at all. I thought Garai portrayed her as a passionate yet immature young woman moving toward self-awareness and, eventually, empathy for those she has hurt. I liked Emma immensely for her flaws and superb character arc. I cannot stand too-good characters. Then again, the heroines I write have been enthusiastically called “bitches” by at least one memorable editor.

    The costumes and choice of setting for this adaptation are incredibly lush. The secondary characters shine. The chemistry between Miller and Garai is palpable, which is no mean feat (I was particularly nauseated by what I felt was the lack of chemistry between the leads in 2011’s BBC adapation of Jane Eyre. Please don’t stone me.)

    This is a treat worth seeing, in my opinion.

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