I first published this review in October of 2009 when Emma aired on the BBC, so some of the links and broadcast references will be out of date.
I don’t even know where to start with this. Quel surreal, as Holly Golightly might have said. There are spoilers here, so proceed with caution.
First off, if you have a UK ip address (hint hint proxy hint), you can stream each episode of Emma as it airs. Episode one is located here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00n7pk1/Emma_Episode_1/
Episode 2 airs on Sunday, October 11 on BBC 1 and should be posted to the site just after. Here’s the schedule, for handy reference.
First, a disclaimer: I wrote this in haste, late sunday night. Since, I’ve been adding thoughts and clarifications as I remember them or as they strike me. So. Bear with me as this thing grows and changes.
Having seen episode one, I want to say that this is gonna be good. So far, it IS good – much better than I expected. Every frame is beautifully composed and shot. The colors and textures are amazing. The writing is solid and the story hangs together well without sacrificing important plot elements from the novel (though some of these elements are somewhat scattered). In fact, at four hours long, this could be the definitive Emma adaptation we’ve all be wishing for (alphabet puzzles, please! So far, only E3 has provided those).
It starts with a prologue, in similar fashion to the first chapters of the book, and then moves into a very pretty opening titles sequence scattered with elegant silhouettes recalling characters and scenes from the story. While the prologue doesn’t go into nearly as much detail regarding the histories of our favorite Highburian families as Austen did (and this is a good thing), it does give us enough background to understand who’s who in the story and where they rank in the larger social scheme. It also amplifies the tragedy factor, which isn’t wrong, really, but goes a bit beyond the placid detachment of Austen’s narration. We learn that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill both come from very unfortunate circumstances, while young Emma “stayed comfortably at home, with very little to distress or vex her for many years to come.â€
Sandy Welch did a good job of contextualizing the events in Emma without deviating too far from actual scenes and dialog that did – or logically could have – occurred in the “real” universe of the novel. I liked seeing Emma morph from babyhood, to young-girlhood, to teenhood, to adulthood over the course of several brief scenes. It was delightful to see five-year-old Emma matchmaking with her dolls under the tea-table whilst the Bateses converse topside with Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor. As Miss Bates rambles on, the scene advances by seven years, and Emma appears as a young lady, plopping down to suffer her share of the conversation. The current subject is Jane Fairfax and her mastery of languages, which Emma attempts to derail with the following nonsequitur: “I’ll have to as Mr. Knightley to teach me Chinese. Do you think Jane could read Chinese?” A little silly, perhaps, but realistic coming from a spoiled, imaginative, and slightly ADD child.
This tableau segues into a scene where twelve-year-old Emma fortells a match between John Knightley and her sister Isabella (which, of course, comes to pass). Literary Emma never takes credit for John + Isabella, but I thought this was a cute way to develop Emma’s matchmaking habits. Emma also expresses her annoyance with Miss Bates’ constant Jane Fairfax effusions, telling Mr. Knightley that she would like to be as academically accomplished as Jane Fairfax but fears that her superior talents lie not in books and languages, but in understanding people. She shows him her very lengthy intended reading list, claiming that she is doing her best. This situation is referenced in the novel, of course, by Mr. Knightley during his candid conversation with Mrs. Weston – the “She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding” scene. Unfortunately, Welch didn’t use this golden quotation during the Knightley/Mrs. Weston chat scene.
We then cut to the local parish church for John and Isabella’s wedding, where young Emma triumphantly conspires to match-make again. She trades a few good-natured barbs with Mr. Knightley (“Lucky guess!” “Nothing lucky about it! Just talent…”), foreshadowing a conversation they will have years later. “Right…who will be next?” she then asks, rather comically, as the scene dissolves into “Highbury present.” We’re in the same church, but the droning vicar is now Mr. Elton, and Emma has set her sights on Mr. Weston and her governess, Miss Taylor.
Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor bond under an umbrella after church (“Miss Taylor and I met with him in Broadway Lane, when, because it becan to mizzle, he darted away with so much galltry, and borrowed two umbrellas for us from Farmer Mitchell’s…,” chapter one), and the rest, as they say, is literary history. We witness the aftermath of their engagement at Hartfield, where Mr. Woodhouse laments Miss Taylor’s upcoming departure and Mr. Knightley, of course, hassles Emma about taking credit for the match (in the book, this conversation takes place just after the wedding, when Mr. Knightley returns from visiting the London Knightleys). Michael Gambon’s Mr. Woodhouse is sufficiently wary of change and, of course, overly tied to his own routines and health superstitions, but he is kindly and lovable (“beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper…,” chapter one). In fact, he reminded me a little of my own dad (trust me, my father talks about his PT like Mr. Woodhouse discusses his turns about the garden…and don’t even get him started about staying warm). I especially liked Mr. Woodhouse’s little cashmere scarves, worn around his neck to keep the imaginary drafts at bay. LOL.
The wedding is portrayed as a slightly grander affair than the very small church-gathering that would have likely occurred in the universe of the novel, but it does at least allow Mrs. Weston’s infamous wedding cake some screen-time. It also allows Mr. Woodhouse an opportunity to nail the Perry children (and even Mr. Perry, the apothecary, himself) at the cake table (though, of course, we find out a bit later that the kids all manage to snag a piece a la chapter two).
The wedding reception also gives the Westons an opportunity to express to Emma their disappointment at Frank’s absence. Emma responds, “I think he does it to increase his mysteriousness…we ladies can only be more intrigued and savour our anticipation until he does visit.” While Emma of the novel is obviously intrigued by the idea of Frank Churchill, I’m not sure she would have spoken of him in such an obviously fannish manner. He is, after all, her best friend’s stepson.
Another thing that struck me as somewhat “off” in this first installment is the gravity that some of the characters seem to place on both Emma’s responsibility to her father and her promises never to marry. I’m not at all bothered that an adaptation should present feminist questions about period material, but I am confused by what appears to be an attempt to actually modernize character consciousness by forcing them to disclaim all talk of saving Emma from her father with subtle lip-service to both Emma’s decision to remain single and her emerging role as the virgin-matriarch of Hartfield. I know that the filmmakers are trying to politically legitimize Emma’s choice to remain independent (before they smash the “decision” to bits, obviously, as Emma and Mr. Knightley have to get hitched), but the idea is too modern/postmodern to actually infiltrate the consciousness of the characters in this way. This also presents a bit of a political conundrum, as the filmmakers are faced with having to reconcile the fact that the source of Emma’s 21st century power (money and independence from husbands) is also, in their version, your garden-variety, old-fashioned patriarchy. Emma doesn’t need/perhaps can’t have a husband because she’s being portrayed as chained in mutual responsibility to her father and her inheritance. And that begs the question: How can Emma’s choice to remain single be recast as authentic and feminist if it’s really not a choice at all? In the novel, Emma’s choice to remain single isn’t authentic, either, but that is more of a function of her immaturity than anything. Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse is more of an excuse than a true bar.
In the novel, everyone indulges Mr. Woodhouse’s attachment to his daughter, yet they never seem to truly doubt the fact that some day Emma will grow out of her self-important singlehood and get married. Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston broach the subject during their “industry and patience” chat in the novel, of course (“I wonder what will become of her…,” chapter five). During this chapter, Mrs. Weston is very obviously hatching a plan to set Emma up with Frank, while Mr. Knightley insists that Emma’s declaration never to marry “means just nothing at all.”
In this adaptation, Mr. and Mrs. Weston actually have a little talk with Mr. Woodhouse where they appear to be attempting to convince the old man to let Emma go, hah! There’s also a manufactured scene during which Isabella Knightley insists that Emma needs to stick around to care for Mr. Woodhouse, to which her husband responds in appropriately arch John Knightley fashion, “So Emma should never be allowed to marry?” Isabella responds firmly that Emma has chosen not to marry, and adds mischievously, “A husband might expect to tell her what to do and she wonâ€™t like that at all!” A funny retort, but perhaps a bit too sharp and modern for Emma… and for the sweet, somewhat bland Isabella. In the same conversation, Isabella refers to Mrs. Weston as “not young,” which is also kind of…out of line for the character.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about Romola Garai’s Emma. This portrayal is one to which I can personally relate, but it’s not quite the poised, equanimous Emma of the novel. Sure, Emma has moments where she loses it a little – kvetching about how sick she is of Miss Bates’ constant Fairfaxian ramblings in chapter ten, for example – but I don’t imagine Emma exploding all over the place in frequent, alternating, almost nonsequitous glee and anger. Sometimes she’s manic and funny, sometimes she’s a little too hyper, and sometimes she’s bordering on obnoxious – and not the good, Emmalike kind. Occasionally, I caught whiffs of Lucy Robinson’s Mrs. Elton in her. While you can make the case that there but for the Grace of God and good breeding goes Emma, I found it more offputting than anything. Some of her dialog worked for me, some of it didn’t. “Men don’t like girls who argue!” was an amusing, childish retort in the feud over Harriet’s rejection of Robert Martin, but it sounded way too 2009 for Emma. I know that Welch and Garai wanted to make Emma accessible for modern girls, and that’s not a bad thing, but the whole “I’m not gonna stay home just because I don’t have someone to walk with” conversation (no, not a direct quote) seemed like it was trying way. too. hard. to be. contemporary. Then there was the whole “you’re just mad because my advice prevailed/I won/you lost” (again, not a direct quote) zinger Emma tossed at Mr. Knightley, which was period correct but absolutely, uncharacteristically nasty. Perhaps more natural than Austen, but way, way meaner.
I absolutely LOVED Emma’s charity walk conversation with Harriet regarding Robert Martin, though. The conversation was a very real girl chat, and both actresses were bubbly and funny without overacting (Garai does an awesome Geez-Harriet-WTF voice). “He thinks too much of business for The Romance of the Forest??? What kind of man is that?! If heâ€™s like that at four and twenty just think what heâ€™ll be like when heâ€™s older. He will be a totally gross, vulgar, inattentive farmer who thinks of nothing but profit and loss!” Ha.
Louise Dylan’s Harriet is pretty, but vacuous – we’ll see if she falls in line with the simple and immature yet profoundly and ironically wise character from the novel. We haven’t seen any of the “it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible” conversation yet, so there’s still time for Harriet to call Emma on her bullshit. Harriet may be unliberated and kind of stupid, but she does seem to have a sense about certain people and situations that Emma not only lacks, but sabotages with her delusions.
There’s a cute moment where Harriet steals Elton’s pencil while attempting to hold her pose for Emma’s portrait. Mr. Elton himself is sufficiently sycophantic and effusive; Mr. Knightley remarks, “That man is so full of himself I’m surprised he can stay on that horse,” as Mr. E rides off to get the portrait framed.
The Bateses are an odd mix of humor and tragedy, which is appropriate yet also inexplicably creepy. At first, Tamsin Greig seems to channel Sophie Thompson with her overperky twitches and uplilted phrasing. Pretty soon, though, her Miss Bates turns into a thoroughly tragic, delusional babbler rather than a beloved motormouth who simply has a lot to say. Instead of talking to her mother, she appears to ramble on to herself. The last to leave the Weston’s wedding reception, we see Miss Bates wheeling her mother down the carriage drive, weaving as she mutters to herself. That’s not funny or endearing. While Austen intended us to feel sorry for Miss Bates, I don’t think she intended for us to find her wholly, disturbingly pathetic. I don’t know, maybe I’m just misunderstanding Tamsin Greig – she has one of those faces I cannot read, so what I think is eyeglaze could actually be inward-shifting disappointment. Oh, and I sensed a bit of bitchfactor in some of Miss Bates’ glances and statements toward Emma (like that whole propriety conversation about going out without a companion). Jealous? Maybe? Miss Bates? No, I can’t really imagine that. She has too good and charitable a heart. Nobody ever claimed that Austen’s characters were perfectly realistic, right?
Jonny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley is perhaps my favorite portrayal so far, along with Gambon’s Mr. Woodhouse. Miller is good-looking, sensible, and good-natured. He’s not afraid to argue with Emma, but he doesn’t bark at her. He does growl and make silly anger-faces, but he doesn’t get petulant or domineering like Mark Strong did. He also gets a nice line about how Elton, Harriet, and everyone else in the real world “are not your dolls,” which ties in nicely with the play-matches Emma makes at the beginning of the episode. Don’t tell Jeremy Northam, but I think he has a run for his money with this one.
Let’s see…oh! The costumes. I like them so far. The general look and feel is circa-1916ish, with triangular, untrained skirts, high waists, and lots of chemisettes. I particularly liked Harriet’s green printed dress with the green satin sash and Emma’s “turkey” red gown with the deep, gold-embroidered hem and the teal sash. Jodhi May’s Mrs. Weston wears a pretty gown of printed lavender muslin with a surplice bodice reminiscent of the Strawberry scene dresses Jenny Beavan designed for Emma 3. Emma and Harriet wear some cute little shoes that resemble Chinese slippers. I’ll need to examine them more closely to see what they really look like.
For more on this miniseries…
- The official site at the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n8s6x
- Official “Press Pack” with Romola Garai and Michael Gambon interviews: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2009/09_september/21/emma.shtml
- A review by Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent: Life Under the Bonnet
- Guardian review of Episode One
- Telegraph interview with Jonny Lee Miller
- WalesOnline interview with Romola Garai