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this review in October of 2009 when Emma aired on the BBC, so some of the links and broadcast references will be out of date.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 apologize for lagging on the latest updates, but I’m pretty sure I’m only inconveniencing maybe three people, all of whom have actually watched the adaptation already. Industry, patience, blah blah blah. ANYWAY.
My initial enthusiasm for this adaptation has not only returned, it has been surpassed. Episode one showed promise, episode two was a teense off-putting, episode three brought the excitement back, and episode four hit the ball out of the park!
Let me preface this entire review with the fact that I have NEVER cried during an Emma proposal scene – not through three adaptations and Clueless (which featured an un-proposal, but whatEVER – and no, that “whatever” was not intended to be apropos; I ACTUALLY SPEAK LIKE THAT). Well, I cried during this one. There was actual book proposal dialog in the mix, namely the “if I loved you less” bit, which made me happy, but not so much that the lines sounded like a recitation. Emma responded with something reasonably in-character; I can’t recall exactly what Sandy Welch had written for her, but it was delivered genuinely enough to qualify as “just what she ought” to say, for “a lady always does.” I was also quite fond of the surprise honeymoon trip to the seaside, which was a perfect capper to the plot thread about Emma’s shelteredness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Part three was exciting! Frank’s arrival, Mrs. Elton’s elitism, the excitement of the ball, the revelation of Mr. Knightley’s feelings for Emma – it all created a propellant energy that made the episode go by WAY too quickly. There was quite a bit of the literary Mrs. E in Christina Cole’s performance, and a certain very bitchy, slightly frightening quality that was lacking in earlier Mrs. Eltons. One can certainly understand why Emma actively sought to avoid this woman, as she was not merely boring or annoying, but vicious. Mrs. Elton’s fashions were quite in line with what we’d expect from a stylish girl whose family earned their money in trade (in her case, it’s inferred, the slave trade); the pretension to finery is appropriately overcompensatory. The frilly, triangulated gowns and high headpieces, in particular. I liked one spencer from episode three especially, although I can’t remember if it was indeed a spencer or perhaps a pelisse bodice. At any rate, it had a long, dense row of covered buttons and what appeared to be some rather Greco-Turkish soutache braid on the front, which reminded me of early 19th century ethnic costume from the Balkans or Greece.
Part four was even better. The portrayal of Frank as a sad child works – his obnoxiousness at the strawberry and Box Hill outings is considerable, but you can entirely understand why, given his family history and his frustration with his aunt, his engagement, and his life in general. One can also understand why Jane was ready to throw in the towel with him, given how he flatters Emma, takes Emma into his arms during the Crown Inn reconnaissance mission (closed-hold dancing positions weren’t exactly commonplace yet, let alone considered entirely decent), and rests his head in her lap at Box Hill.
Even though it’s not exactly book-correct, I thought the happy Frank/Jane reunification scene at the end was rather sweet. It punctuated the idea that Frank Churchill is not a selfish cad (although I suppose quite a few people really do feel that he IS a selfish cad…lol).
Of the dances, I don’t really have much to say other than holy crap, lots of window- and closed-holds. The three or four dances used in the ball scene looked like they were very heavily choreographed (especially the last). I didn’t recognize a single one. Further, may I just say that Frank is awfully fond of getting girls in his arms, which is kinda presumptuous given the etiquette – even the dance etiquette – of the period.
I loved repentent Emma at the Bateses. Heck, I love Romola Garai as sensitive, kind, olive-branchy-mode Emma. Further, the grace and charity with which Tamsin Greig’s Miss Bates accepts Emma’s penitential overtures was particularly touching.
So, I think I have discovered my threshold, or my happy medium if you will, as to what constitutes the right balance of literary correctness and new interpretation. I want important scenes and choice bits of dialog to remain intact, but I don’t want so much that the actors sound like they’re reading the novel aloud. I think the only really jarring dialog in the entire second half of this adaptation was Emma’s post-proposal outburst at Donwell. This snippet made the teaser, and as such, it was one of the first glimpses that I saw of this adaptation. As such, it put me off for quite awhile. I’m glad I decided to watch without letting my first impressions cloud my enjoyment of the piece.
Overall, I like this adaptation. It covered all the major bases as far as scenes go, and there was enough book dialog in it to keep me happy. I didn’t always like crazy-outburst Emma, but there was enough diversity within the portrayal to redeem some of the overly modern lines and mannerisms. I thought Mr. Woodhouse’s crazy sheltered parent thing might get a bit old after awhile, but the episode four scenes in which our loving, kind Mr. Woodhouse reminds Emma that he really and truly is terrified of losing her makes the character less ridiculous than sweet and sympathetic. Perhaps not exactly book-correct, but it makes for a more compelling character. Oops, did I just SAY that?
And Jonny Lee Miller….damn. Jeremy who?