Emma: The Girl that Jane Liked
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 on
Classic. 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 Beckinsdale (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. In this 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, as Mr. Knightly narrates in the beginning, golden. That is 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 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 had a little reservation, in the 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. Despite this, I 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.
This first episode struck me as a lively, contemporary rendition. While screenwriter Sandy Welch chose 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.
‘An authentic human being’ is how the host of Masterpiece Classic Laura Linney describes Emma. Jane Austen’s characters have no supernatural powers, she notes. But herein lies the magic of her writing. She takes the ordinary and draws out the unnoticed features. From these everyday characters like you and me, she skillfully displays the intricacies woven in their interactions, and reveals the undercurrents of hidden intentions and desires. It is in the revealing of the subtext that makes her story so captivating even for us modern day readers.
Episode 2 continued with this interesting story as we see Emma confused by her own feelings towards Frank Churchill, Harriet’s shifting admiration for the same, Frank Churchill’s seemingly open admiration for Emma, Mr. Knightly’s growing sentiments for the same, and, Jane Fairfax’s hidden anguish, ignored by the subject of her desire. It seems that everyone’s feelings are mixed up with everyone else’s. The comedy of errors gathers momentum.
In this segment, cinematography continues to be a major contributor to the storytelling. I particularly appreciated the several Vermeer moments, like the one with Emma gazing out the window deep in thought, or the camera silently capturing her playing the pianoforte, immersed in diffused light. I’ve also enjoyed how the visual reveals inner thoughts. Mr. Knightly’s longing is projected by the flashback of his dancing with Emma, shifting to the single swan in the pond, warm music enfolding… a beautiful cinematic moment where the visual and music communicate effectively without words.
Mrs. Elton is animatedly played by Christina Cole. In terms of comedic and obnoxious effects, she is of her husband’s equal, a good match indeed. While Rupert Evans is proficient in portraying a sly Frank Churchill, he does not look like the one I have in mind. But that is not important. My main concern is with the role of Jane Fairfax. This second episode confirmed my misgiving from the beginning. I feel there is a miscast here. I miss her elegance, poise and subtleties as described by the author. She is supposed to be Emma’s worthy rival after all.
The dance at The Crown Inn is a delight to watch. That is also the occasion showing everybody’s true colours. Here, Mr. Knightly proves himself to be one considerate gentleman as he invites Harriet to dance after she is slighted by Mr. Elton. Also, we’re beginning to see Mr. Knightly more and more in love, while the object of his desire remains relatively clueless, albeit a sense of appreciation has arisen in her confused heart. The dances are fun to watch too, much more lively and convivial than t
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