Friday Film Review: Emma (BBC)
Genre: Novel adaptation/Romance/Regency Period
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