An archival review of Emma 3.
Emma 3: London Times Review
Costume drama in light and darker guise; November 25, 1996
Oh, my boots and breeches--so much period drama and so little space. Peasants and pitchforks at the ready? Stooks stacked? Then I'll begin.
There was not much wrong with Emma (ITV) that a long Christmas lunch wouldn't have put right. A warm sense of overfed wellbeing was just what was needed to help us to overlook the thinness and essential silliness of the plot, while a glass or two of red wine might have soothed the mild attacks of bilious contempt that churned every time a coach and four came to a snowy halt outside a brightly lit window. Mind you, that still left the dream sequences to cope with. If you hadn't got to the brandy by the time Frank Churchill's portrait morphed into the man himself, you were in trouble. It was scary.
But even on the last Sunday of November there was much to recommend it, not least of which was the chance to consume this latest adaptation of Jane Austen at one sitting. Unlike Pride & Prejudice, Emma simply doesn't have the story to sustain interest over a longer period. It is a delightful trifle, a not very elaborate connubial concoction. Who will Miss Woodhouse marry? Well, you've got two guesses, neither one of whom spells disaster. Not exactly the stuff of which suspense is made, is it?
Diarmuid Lawrence, the director, tried to throw us off the scent with a confusing succession of admiring glances. Miss Woodhouse (Kate Beckinsale) admired Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard) who admired her back, but still sneaked enough glances at Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) to make it pretty clear to anybody but our self-absorbed heroine where his true affections lay.
Miss Fairfax glanced at nobody--she was that sort of girl--but, when he wasn't taking stones out of horses' hooves and other good deeds, she got the once or thrice over from the saintly Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong) as well as from the progressively caddish Churchill. Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton) glanced at anybody in breeches--she was that sort of a girl. Desperate.
But, long before we got to Austen's Very Nearly As You Like It finale, it was clear who was intended for whom. Which left plenty of time for singing, dancing and general a-wassailing.
In the title role, Beckinsale followed the modern vogue for...well, for making period heroines rather modern, and charmingly got away with it. As Churchill, Coulthard dashed to good effect, while as the benevolent Knightley, Strong was good to dashing effect. Austen's rather heavy-handed humour was lightly dealt with by Bernard Hepton as the perennially anxious Mr Woodhouse, by Prunella Scales at the loquacious Miss Bates and by Lucy Robinson as the ghastly Mrs Elton--even if at times her accent seemed to hail from a few thousand miles further west than Bristol. What else? Oh yes, Samantha Bond was outstanding as Mrs Weston...sorry, had to get it in somewhere.