Watching Emma 2009 is a visual feast for the eye. I wrote about my visceral reaction to this film for the PBS blog Remotely Connected and discussed the similarities between Jane Austen and Vermeer. This review addresses my other impressions about Emma 2009, first shown by the BBC in Great Britain last fall and airing on PBS Masterpiece Classic over the next three Sundays. Take a poll here and tell us what you think of Episode One.
I am of two minds about this new version of Emma. The script follows the story linearly, from Emma’s birth to the moment of Miss Taylor’s wedding to Mr. Weston, whereas in the book the story starts with the marriage. Interestingly, the narrator at the start of the film is Jonny Lee Miller (Mr Knightley), and we hear of Emma’s story from his perspective. The film sets up three characters from the start: Emma Woodhouse, Frank Churchill née Weston, and Jane Fairfax. All three children lost their mothers at an early age, but only Emma remained in Highbury. She led a charmed life under the care of her governess, Miss Taylor, a kind and loving mother figure.
I must admit that I was in “high dudgeon” when I first watched these scenes, unable to connect the script to Jane Austen’s writing. However, I am aware that films are a visual and expensive medium, and they must not only take into account time restrictions, but also the richness of visual language. It might take Jane Austen several pages to describe a scene that the eye can perceive within moments. Mr. Woodhouse’s nervous-Nellie approach to life, always worried about the minutia of the health and the welfare of his family and friends, is woven into the fabric of the script, and is often shown more than told.
Mrs. and Miss Bates’ downfall is not described per se. We first see them saying goodbye to Jane Fairfax in the hallway of the comfortable vicarage, which was their home when Rev. Bates was still alive. We then see them next in their new lodging, an upstairs apartment in Highbury with crumbling walls and meanly furnished rooms. A single glance from Tamsin Greig (Miss Bates) belies her cheery disposition and tells us all we need to know about their reduced circumstances.
I was also struck by the costumes and how the colors the characters wore complimented the settings as well as each other. In one scene in Hartfield, Mr. Knightley’s vest, Mr. Woodhouse’s scarf, and Emma’s sash picked up the colors in the room and of each other. This scheme is followed repeatedly in many scenes.
The more I watch this film adaptation (I have seen portions of it four times), the more my impressions of the actors keep changing. In real life, Jonny Lee Miller is 37 years old, exactly Mr. Knightley’s age. Some critics have thought him too young or all wrong for the part, but as the film progressed, especially in the second and third installments, I warmed towards him. I now regard his performance as George Knightley as my favorite of all the actors who have played this gentleman. High praise coming from me, for I admit I was among the naysayers when Jonny’s casting was first announced.
Although I changed my mind about Jonny Lee Miller, I have never quite warmed up to Romola Garai as Emma. She is a lovely and talented actress, and I liked her star turn in Daniel Deronda immensely, but I found her facial contortions in this film disconcerting and cannot recall such exaggerated mannerisms in her other films. A friend who watched the film with me liked Romola’s performance, saying that her portrayal of a spoilt, headstrong girl who was raised by a doting father was spot on. However, I thought Romola’s performance was too theatrical, as if she were trying to reach the audience seated in the last row of a large theatre. The camera’s lens magnifies everything facial movement, and she could have (should have) toned down her grimaces, toothy smiles, and wide-eyed looks of wonder or consternation. I did come to appreciate Romola’s chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller, which was palpable. One can see the sparks fly between these two characters, which is the point of a romance after all.
As for the secondary characters, I admired Tamsin Greig’s Miss Bates, which surprised me. While her character is irritating, Tamsin managed to make us feel sorry for her even as we were irritated by her babbling. Her performance is almost as memorable as Sophie Thompson’s, whose 1996 portrayal of Miss Bates remains my favorite. Valerie Lillie’s performance as Mrs. Bates was way past tea, for she looked comatose and unresponsive. Frankly, her part required nothing more than for her to sit in a chair and look dour. Blake Ritson’s turn as Mr. Elton was a bit too mannered for my tastes, but he was perfectly matched with Christina Cole’s vulgar Mrs. Elton. And I quit liked Louise Dylan as Harriet Smith: pretty but not as attractive as beautiful Emma, sweet-natured and malleable, and as dim as a snuffed candle. I’m not sure Michael Gambon was quite right for the part of Mr. Woodhouse. His face and figure are too vigorous for a hypochondriac and worrywart, and his performance did not in any way displace my estimation of Bernard Hepton’s masterful portrayal of Mr.Woodhouse in 1996.
As far as I am concerned, the Frank Churchill of my imagination has never been captured by any of the Emma adaptations, including this one. I thought that pug-nosed Rupert Evans was all wrong for the part and I did not believe for a moment that anything about his looks or behavior would attract Emma’s interest. As for Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax, she’s talented, but much too mousy for my tastes. Yes, her situation is untenable, for Frank does not at all act in a gentleman like manner, but I rather liked Olivia Williams’ interpretation of the character, beautiful, demure, and alternately angry and hurt.
This film gets stronger with each episode, and the second and third installments sealed my admiration for this latest version of Emma. The cinematography is beautiful and the actors play their characters in lovely interiors, settings and locations. The film is almost four hours long, which, thankfully, allows for more plot and character development than a 2-hour version.
I must add that PBS has gone out of its way to make its Masterpiece Classic site worth visiting. Those who missed the first installment can watch it online starting Monday, January 25th. The site offers a Bachelors of Highbury quiz (such fun), a Romola Garai audio slide show, screenwriter Q&A with Sandy Welch, and other features.
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