Previously on Masterpiece Classic…
Yes, treat this post as a recap to prepare you for Episode 2 in just a couple of days.
So finally, North American viewers have the chance to see the long awaited 2009 BBC production of Emma, three months after its release in the UK. A click on imdb will find no less than 15 different versions of this popular Austen work. Yet another one? It just naturally leads one to question, why? After seeing this first episode, let me give it a shot: just because it’s so much fun to do.
That’s how I felt as I watched the PBS broadcast last Sunday. This newest adaptation of Emma is probably the best I’ve seen, and Romola Garai easily the best-cast Emma so far. Yes, I’m comparing her with Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) and Kate Beckinsale (1996, TV). She may well be one of the best-cast Austen heroines for their roles in my opinion, let’s just say, neck and neck with Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet.
What a difference from her guilt-ridden Briony in the movie Atonement. Well, Garai’s Emma is guilt-ridden too as the errant, over-confident matchmaker, but her genuine heart and willingness to own up to her misjudgment have made her personality shine through.
In creating Emma, Austen had said that “I’m going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Seems like this adaptation does a great service pulling us over to Austen’s side. Garai’s Emma reflects the probable reasons why the author found her character likable: vivacious, charmingly clueless, and above all, her readiness to admit faults, her genuine heart towards herself and others. Garai’s animated performance is most apt in a comedic genre such as this. So far in the first episode, the irony and humor have come through.
The impressive cinematography matches perfectly the personality and atmosphere of the novel, brisk, agile, fun, and yes, as Mr. Knightly narrates in the beginning, golden. Just the kind of colour scheme for a clever comedy, the exact reflection of its main character. As a comedy, a little exaggeration in the colours is acceptable and quite effective I think. Overall, the visuals are captivating, beautiful shots of the English country landscape, the well situated mansions and their interior renderings. I’ve particularly appreciated the few overhead shots, and some of the contrasting darker scenes in the beginning.
And yes, the beginning is where a film can captivate right away. I’ve enjoyed screenwriter Sandy Welch’s treatment of the plot, drawing out three characters, Emma, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax, who had all lost their mother as a young child, and focusing on how markedly different their lives have turned out.
For the casting of Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightly, however, I have a little reservation, in this first episode anyway. The sparks between Emma and him look more like sibling bickering than the undercurrents of subliminal lovers’ quarrels, which Austen so brilliantly depicts. The 16 years of age difference is almost unobservable here, although in real life they are ten years apart. But I’ve enjoyed Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of the conflicting Mr. Knightly, at times detached, at times involved, and at times, exasperated.
Michael Gambon is excellent as the fastidious Mr. Woodhouse. The legendary actor has delivered a convincing performance as an endearing but taxing hypochondriac. As for Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, I’m afraid my preference is the 1996 TV production‘s casting of Samantha Morton and Olivia Williams in these roles. But then again, my view can change as I continue watching.
This first episode strikes me as a lively, contemporary rendition. While screenwriter Sandy Welch had chosen to use more modern language in her dialogues, I don’t think she needed to stray too far from the original to achieve this. As I’m re-reading Emma for these screenings, I find the book very accessible for modern readers, the characters are those whom we can relate to, their motives and emotions very similar to what we are familiar with. Austen’s skills in observation and her intelligence in depicting human nature and her characters’ inner world are simply impressive, considering she was writing almost a hundred years before Freud and the birth of modern psychology.
Arti’s reviews of Emma (2009), Episodes 1 to 3, have been compiled into one article and published in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine. CLICK HERE to read the many other interesting articles on Jane Austen and her time.