“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sage advice from the philosophizing Forrest Gump. The same can be said of Jane Austen adaptations. Last nights US premiere of screenwriter Sandy Welch’s newly retooled Emma on Masterpiece Classic had its mix of nuts, chews and soft centers. Most viewers will be tempted to consume it quickly like the beautifully crafted confection that it is. I prefer to take a small bite first to see what I’m getting.
Emma may very well be the last Jane Austen adaptation (or any other bonnet drama) that we see on television for quite some time (now available to purchase online here). The BBC is feigning Austen fatigue after years of milking the almighty cash cow. Since 2005 we have been treated to a new major movie or television production of each of Jane Austen’s six major novels. Emma (2009) completes the set. Time to bring on the reality television and grittier fare. So speaketh auntie Beeb. Because of their partnership with the BBC, Masterpiece PBS is hooked into their decisions too, though I suspect with more regret than they will admit since Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton remarked last week “We are not stupid: Jane Austen is catnip to our audience.”
This new Emma has almost everything that this bonnet drama geek could hope for in an Austen film adaptation: four hours to develop the story to its fullest, beautiful, beautiful production values, a seasoned and award winning screenwriter and a cast dappled with some of Britain’s finest veteran actors and up and coming stars. What’s not to like? How could it go wrong? Let me extol upon its many charms and a few foibles.
As host Laura Linney began her introduction, I was waiting for her to pop in Jane Austen’s famous ironic remark about Emma Woodhouse, “a heroine no one but myself will much like.” She did not disappoint. Over the centuries Emma has had her share of advocates and adversaries. She is actually a bit of a pill. Handsome, clever and rich with nothing to vex her, she is not one of Austen’s typical financially challenged heroines. There in lies the rub. We are not in the least sympathetic to her situation, and in fact, quite annoyed by her self-deluded notions of merrily matchmaking for her friends with disastrous results. In the three previous adaptations of Emma, we have seen her portrayed as an elegant toffee-nosed snob by Doran Godwin in 1972, an immature busybody by Kate Beckinsale and a mischievous altruist by Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. Now Romola Garai has been passed the baton and plays it close to Austen’s intensions, but with thrice the emotion.
Emma (2009) might just surpass the venerable 1995 Pride and Prejudice in superior production values. It is a visual delight, skillfully crafted by a gifted production team of designer Stevie Herbert and art director Pilar Foy. Bravo. The stately Regency-era homes chosen to stand-in for the Woodhouse estate of Hartfield (Squerryes Court, Kent), Mr. Knightley’s residence at Donwell Abbey (Loseley Park, Guildford, Surrey) and the village of Highbury (Chilham, Kent) elegantly and historically set the stage for all of the other production elements.
The costumes designed by Rosalind Ebbutt may not have been completely period accurate as to color, but the coordination of color schemes to the set of actors in a scene and within the room it was filmed in was stunning. I particularly appreciated Emma Woodhouse’s lovely pale coral evening gown and Harriet Smith’s virginally white frock at the Crown Inn Ball. Ebbutt has a keen eye for accessories and her use of jewelry and shawls was striking, but sadly I was quite disappointed in the bonnets which tended to be too droopy and not quite as refined and highly fashioned as one would wish. Highbury is in the country, but the elegant Miss Woodhouse can still be allowed a bit of London millinery foppery. The gentleman’s attire was tolerable, though I admit to feeling more than a bit embarrassed by the cut of Mr. Knightley’s waistcoat in one scene that made him look rather like he was twelve and in need of ten years to grow into it. Many of the actors have director of photography Adam Suschitzky to thank for making them look glowingly elegant and refined. Ladies never look so fine as by candle light and the interior evening scenes of the Woodhouse dinner party, the Christmas eve dinner at Randalls and the Ball at the Crown Inn were particularly flattering.
When I read the original casting announcements I was a bit surprised by some of the choices. I had been rooting for Richard Armitage as Mr. Knightley and could envision no other in his stead. When the part was given to Jonny Lee Miller, I was crestfallen. On the other hand, I was pleased by the selection of Romola Garai as Miss Woodhouse. I had enjoyed her performances in I Capture the Castle and Atonement and thought her a talented young actress. Interestingly, I would change my position on each of the leads, resisting Miller at first, then growing to admire his comedic timing while accepting Garai immediately until her overplay of emotion with eye popping and exaggerated facial expressions was totally distracting. I will admit though, that she did improve upon acquaintance. As Miss Woodhouse matured through the course of the narrative, so did my respect for her.
Among the secondary characters that stood out most in this large ensemble cast was Louise Dylan as Emma’s dear friend and plaything Harriet Smith. Happily she did not play Harriet as a complete airhead as we have seen in the past by Toni Collette in the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version. I am Miss Smith’s warmest admirer of her character in the novel and always cast a critical eye on her portrayal in adaptations. Ms. Dylan filled the part emotionally, but she looked a tad bit more than 17 to Romola who did not look 21 either, so there you have it. On the comedy/tragedy front Tamsin Greig’s interpretation of the garrulous Miss Bates was really heart wrenching to experience in opposition to the ditzy and dotty versions by Sophie Thompson or Prunella Scales in the two 1996 Emma productions. She made me cry at the Box Hill picnic scene. You could really feel her fear and trepidation as a spinster living in genteel poverty at the mercy of the kindness of her neighbors the Woodhouse’s and Mr. Knightey. Blake Ritson gave us a Mr. Elton that I had not thought possible, but I enjoyed. Austen had described him as handsome, which Mr. Ritson certainly is, but I had thought of him as more of a toad than a suave charmer.
My greatest disappointments in characterization were Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Michael Gambon who portrayed Mr. Woodhouse is a legend. He was given little to say and looked way too healthy for the part of a valetudinarian who is frightened by a piece of cake. Christina Cole as the vulgar Mrs. Elton missed the mark completely. Since social rank in marriage was everything in Regency society, she is far too pretty to play a rich woman who would accept a country vicar as a husband. In addition, her delivery of some of Austen’s most brilliantly biting lines was decidedly flat. Laura Pyper as the reserved Miss Jane Fairfax was a beautiful and accomplished foil for Miss Woodhouse, but too demure for my sensibilities. I liked Olivia William’s edgier kettle ready to boil over containment in the 1996 version. Ah Frank Churchill. Rupert Evans looked the part and spoke the part, but he did not live the part. No one in my estimation has yet to fill those boots with enough oozing charm and decided deception.
Now for the cream as Emma says to Harriet. Was this a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s masterpiece of characterization and biting social commentary? Hardly. Screenwriter Sandy Welch has taken the bones of Austen’s brilliant story and padded it with her own words. Very little of Austen’s amazing language remains. A few quotes here and there, but this is entirely her own imagining. Director Jim O’Hanlon has built upon that premise and interjected a totally different tone and energy to Austen’s original subtle and underplayed story that some of her adversaries have said is about nothing. Possibly they felt it was also about nothing and needed to modernize it with heightened emotion and darker depths. Austen revealed in the first chapter of Emma that ‘The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way.’ Ironically, this Emma could have been perfection if the screenwriter and director had heeded Miss Austen’s warning and not used their power to go their own way. As Austen adaptations go, this nonsensical Emma is the best of the last six supplied, but I still feel we have a way to go in interpreting Austen faithfully to the screen. Was it enjoyable? Certainly. Will I watch it again? Without hesitation.
A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the editor of Austenprose a blog devoted to the writing of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. Classically trained as a landscape designer at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, she has also worked in marketing for a Grand Opera company and at present she delights in introducing neophytes to the charms of Miss Austen’s prose as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives near Seattle, Washington where it rains a lot.
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