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Is Sunday night’s broadcast of the 1997 A&E version of Emma on Masterpiece Classic worth watching? Absolutely! Even those who liked Gwyneth Paltrow’s elegant interpretation of 20 year-old Miss Woodhouse as much as I did, will find Kate Beckinsale’s bossy Emma satisfying in a more down-to-earth way. When Kate made this film she had just completed her role as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, a surprise cinematic hit.

Miss Emma Woodhouse, 20-year-old self-satisfied spinster

Kate plays the part of an interfering, well-meaning young woman with youthful ease and assurance. In addition, this actress is truly British, and she moves, talks, and acts naturally through the English landscape. I am always delighted to see a British actress play a British character (My apologies to Gwyneth, Renee Zellweger, and Anne Hathaway). I know many will disagree with me, but at times Gwyneth reminded me too much of a beautiful high fashion model with her uber thin, attenuated figure and modern facial features. She was as lovely to view as an Ingres line drawing, but I could relate to Kate’s old-fashioned prettiness better.

As you can see from the photos below, Kate’s range as an actress, when compared to supporting actress Samantha Morton, is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, she possessed sufficient acting chops to tackle this challenging role.

In these images (from left to right, top to bottom), Kate as Emma expresses 1) interest in Harriet when speaking to Mrs.Goddard, 2) a mixture of hurt and anger when listening to a lecture by Mr. Knightley, 3) proud admiration in viewing Mr. Knightley’s house, 4) disbelief and tender joy when Mr. Knightley proposes to her, 5) horror to Mr. Elton’s proposal, 6) envy listening to Jane Fairfax’s superior performance at the piano, 7) dreaminess after she and Mr. Knightley have declared their love for each other, and 8. polite and covert interest in Jane Fairfax as Miss Bates extols Jane’s virtues.
I love this reaction shot of Kate (below), whose expressions conveyed several emotions at once. Here, Emma has walked into Mr. Knightley’s sitting room, where she encounters her father by a small fire. Her face captures the combination of love, patience, forbearance, and puzzlement that Emma must have felt toward her father, as he once again frets and worries over minor points of comfort.

Miss Harriet Smith, 17-year old natural daughter of a gentleman

Movie buffs require no introduction to Samantha Morton, an actress so talented that one’s eyes immediately turn to her when she enters a scene.

Samantha’s Harriet Smith is all about innocence, naiveté, and puppyish eagerness to please. Her will – weak and easily persuaded – is sweet and passive. Emma couldn’t have found a more tractable person for her next project in matchmaking. Samantha’s artless Harriet, however, does not come across as dumb, for she often, though softly, questions Emma, and one senses throughout the film that she is unwilling quite to let go of her dream of living in a pretty yellow cottage with her yeoman farmer, Mr. Martin, and his two friendly, well-educated sisters. In Samantha’s interpretation of Harriet, we finally see a young woman worthy of Emma’s attempts at improvement.

While Toni Collette is a fine actress, whose turn as Cole’s frantic mother in The Sixth Sense moved me to tears, her plump, dumbed down Harriet left me perplexed and wondering what the elegant Gwyneth/Emma ever saw in her.

Mr. Knightley, 37-year-old gentleman, owner of Donwell Abbey, and Emma’s brother-in-law

Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightley sets the movie’s serious tone. His hawk-like features are dark, almost sinister, and his lithe, athletic figure moves with animal grace. In fact, Mark’s Mr. Knightley is dangerously and forcefully handsome, but not in a classical sense. His interpretation of Emma’s friend and lover is more vigorous than Jeremy Northam’s. Under repeated viewing and scrutiny, Mark’s performance holds up well. His angry encounters with Emma are a perfect foil to the moments when he is caught off guard tenderly watching her or smiling at something she has done or said, and after he proposes to her.
The change in Mark’s Mr. Knightley is most evident at the Harvest Ball, where he cannot contain his love for Emma. Many critics thought that this particular Mr. Knightley was too forceful, however I found that once he expressed his feelings for Emma, the change in his demeanor contributed to a completely satisfying romantic ending. The wolf has been tamed, and while we suspect that this Mr. Knightley will always be an exacting and demanding lover (ooh la la!), we also know that he will cherish Emma forever.

Critics of this movie will say it is too dark in tone, that the light-hearted spirit of Jane’s comedic novel was better captured by the 1996 theatrical film. Frankly, I prefer this film’s meatier fare. While Emma’s generous spirit and sincere interest in her charity work are largely ignored in this film version (and emphasized in Gwyneth’s Emma), Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are allowed to play out their charade under everyone’s noses, Bernard Hepton as Mr. Woodhouse is given free reign to explore his character, and the backdrop of regency life and manners is filmed in minute detail.

One of the film’s most important characters is the village of Highbury (played by Laycock, a National Trust village in Wiltshire.) This village is peopled with gentry, artisans, craftsmen, servants, and laborours going about their business. As the protagonists move through this landscape, the evidence of regency life playing itself out fascinated me – from Emma’s courtesy visits to Miss Bates – to the ball at the Crown Inn – to the seating at table, with Emma in the position of hostess, and Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Weston at the head of the table with Mr. Woodhouse – to the footman holding the candelabra up to Harriet’s picture so that everyone could see it better – to the farmers and their families harvesting grain before The Harvest Ball.

I found Gwyneth’s world overly beautiful, refined, and Hollywood-sanitized, but Kate’s world showed some rough edges, most particularly when depicting exactly how much hard labor was involved in supporting the lavish lifestyle of the landed gentry. Who can forget the strawberry picking scene at Donwell Abbey where footmen dressed in livery (an extreme sign of wealth) stood by each guest, moving the kneeling cushions along the rows of strawberries; or the servants laboring to cart furniture, dishes, and food up Box Hill in order to provide a bucolic outing for the guests? Or Frank’s gift of the piano being hoisted up to the second floor of Mrs. and Miss Bates’s rooms, because the stairs were too steep, winding, and narrow?

These typical touches of an Andrew Davies script influenced my decision: I prefer this cinematic version of Emma. Oh, please do feel free to quibble. As I watch Gwyneth’s version of Emma again, my preference just might swing back to that movie. When it comes to all things Jane Austen, I am known to be fickle!

Watch Emma tonight on Masterpiece Classic at 9 p.m. Read the reviews about Emma on PBS’s Remotely Connected, and details at this PBS site.

Can’t get enough of Emma? Please click on the following:

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Our blogs are gearing up in anticipation of PBS’s airing of Emma two weeks from now.

Laurel Ann wrote a wonderful post on Austenprose about Jane Austen, Stella Gibbons, and Kate Beckinsale . Kate fans know that one of her major movie roles early in her career was as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm. In fact, Flora was Emma’s equal in setting herself up as a matchmaker and putting peoples’ lives to right, and the very young Kate played that part to perfection.

Jane Austen Today published two Emma posts this weekend: one about the darkly handsome Mark Strong, who played Mr. Knightley, and the other on Andrew Davies’ role in writing the script for the A&E version of Emma.

For those who can’t wait to see this movie, which came out just after the theatrical release of Emma directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, you can purchase the DVD at WGBH Shop.

  • Learn more particulars about Emma on IMDb.

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One of my favorite blogs on the blogosphere is ::Surroundings:: by interior designer Linda Merrill. Linda, who is a fan of the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, has been hard at work finding scrumptious pieces of furniture and objects d’art that would fit perfectly inside Netherfield Park, Longbourn, and Pemberley. Click on the following links to view her interior shots of these fabulous houses and some of the objects you can order today.

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Rowlandson illustration from Wikipedia

‘What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.’

‘Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.’

Sir William only smiled. ‘Your friend performs delightfully,’ he continued, after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; ‘and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.’

‘You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.’

‘Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight.
– Conversation between Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter VI.

Dances figure prominently in Jane Austen’s novels. Whether performed in public assembly rooms in Meryton or in private at the Netherfield Ball, dances offered social opportunities for young people to mix and mingle and converse in an acceptable fashion. In an era when a young lady of good breeding was strictly chaperoned and escorted everywhere she went, she would find it difficult during a routine day to meet privately with a single gentleman, even one who was courting her. Indeed, such conduct was strictly forbidden (and the reason why Marianne Dashwood’s behavior with Willoughby was considered shockingly forward). The ballroom, however, afforded a social situation in which a couple could arrange to be together for one or two sets. Since a dance would often last for half an hour, the dancers had ample time to converse, flirt, and even touch one another in an accepted manner.

A gentleman would, of course, never ask a young lady to dance unless he was first introduced to her. This is one of the reasons why Henry Tilney made sure to arrange a formal introduction to Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen through the Master of Ceremonies.

During this era people were often judged for their ability to dance skillfully, and a gentleman was pressured to cut a fine figure on the dance floor. In his advice to his son about manners and deportment, Lord Chesterfield wrote: “Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.”

It is notable that Mr.Collins movements are awkward, and that his conduct on the dance floor mortifies Lizzy: “The first two dances, however, brought a return of distress; they were dances of mortification. Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was exstasy.” (Pride and Prejudice) Mr. Collins’ ineptness as a dancer would have been immediately understood by the contemporary reader to mean that he was not a polished gentleman. To compound his lack of manners, he boldly walks up to Mr. Darcy to introduce himself.

Young ladies and gentlemen practiced their dancing steps, belying Mr. Darcy’s assertion that “every savage can dance.” Professional dancing masters were employed to ensure that a young lady and gentleman learned the steps to a variety of intricate dance movements. Such instruction also helped a young gentleman to keep his bearing upright. Lord Chesterfield wrote his son, who was taking The Grand Tour, “Remember to take the best dancing-master at Berlin, more to teach you to sit, stand, and walk gracefully, than to dance finely. The Graces, the Graces; remember the Graces! Adieu!” Learning the steps was easier said than done, since “between 1730-1830 over twenty-seven thousand country dances with their tunes were published in England alone.” Thankfully, the Master of Ceremonies would choose only a certain number of dances to be performed for the evening, most likely consisting of the most fashionable dances of that particular year.* (Thompson, The Felicities of Rapid Motion)

The most important lady present would open the ball by dancing the first set, as Elizabeth Elliot did as the eldest daughter. Emma Woodhouse would have also been given the honors. Mr. Darcy’s rank and friendship with Mr. Bingley most likely put his position at the top of the line of dancers. Thus, when he asks Elizabeth to dance at the Netherfield Ball they would figure prominently in the line of dancers. The other couples in a country dance set would follow the lead of the top couple, and progressively work their way down the line. Sets of five to eight couples were popular during this period, with partners standing opposite each other as the other couples completed a sequence of movements

Standing and facing each other in line, therefore, was typical for couples engaged in a country dance. However, they were expected to make some conversation as they waited for the next movement. A gentleman, if he applied himself, could skillfully lead the conversation and put a young lady at ease, or pretend to be interested in any topic she brought up. Mr. Darcy chose to remain silent.

They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:

“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. — I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

“Very well. — That reply will do for the present. — Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. — But now we may be silent.”

“Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?”

“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together, and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as as possible.” – Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1, Chapter 18

In a public assembly, where people paid a fee to attend, people from various walks of life would come in contact with one another. “Aristocrats would interact with gentry, tradespeople, or even servants who were called in to make up a set if there were not enough couples…” (Sullivan, p 168). Mr. Darcy chose to dance only with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley at the public assembly rooms in Meryton, thereby displeasing a wide variety of people, particularly Mrs. Bennet, who was vocal about her displeasure, for there was a scarcity of gentlemen and Lizzy had been forced to sit out two dances. For her part, once a lady refused a gentleman, she was honor bound to pass on other invitations to dance for the rest of the evening.

Private balls became more popular towards the end of the century, when many grand houses began to boast their own ballrooms. At private affairs, the host and hostess could invite the ‘right’ sort of people. These balls were not only more selective, but they provided music played by more professional musicians, and offered delicious and elaborate refreshments as well.

Illustration from The English Folk Dance and Song Society

Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is the music featured at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice 1995 (You can listen to it by clicking on the YouTube video above). The piece was written by Johan Playford in 1695, and published in Playford’s Dancing Master, a country dance guidebook. Maggot in those days meant “favorite,” and the term probably was used in conjunction with a favorite dance. “Today there are two modern versions of the dance – one published by Pat Shaw and one by Cecil Sharp. Shaw’s version of Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is generally accepted to be the most authentic since it follows the AAB structure of the music, and Playford clearly states that the second, or B, line of music should be ‘played but once’.”

Links and Resources:

Festival Ball Tickets for September 27, 2008 are now on sale at The Jane Austen Centre, Bath. Tickets this year are £65. To purchase tickets and for further information on the ball and dance workshop taking place in the afternoon of the ball, contact Farthingales or call 44 (0)1225 471919

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Oh what a fun site this is! Its creator has assembled a host of interesting facts about P&P ’95, some of which are highlighted below:

        • Jane Austen figured largely in the BAFTA television award ceremony 1996. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth’s perfomances as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, and Benjamin Whitrow’s portrayal of long-suffering Mr Bennet, earned them Best Actress and Best Actor nominations. In the end, Jennifer Ehle was the only one to receive an award for best actress.
        • Colin Firth: “When Pride and Prejudice was offered I just thought, without even having read it ‘Oh, that old warhorse’ and I unwrapped the huge envelope with great trepidation. I think I was only about five pages in when I was hooked. It was remarkable. I don’t think any script has fired me up quite as much, just in the most basic, romantic-story terms”
        • Colin Firth in The Times while still filming P&P: “There’ll be people who will object strongly simply because it’s my face instead of the one they have in their mind. Everyone believes he is dark, though I don’t believe Jane Austen ever described him as such. So they’ve dyed me dark. You have to be very careful not to make him either too idiosyncratic or too bland, and the danger is that you don’t dare to do anything at all. So you have to take over and say, ‘To hell with it, he’s mine now. I own this character and he has to be me’.”
        • In a Blog Critics interview, Jennifer Ehle says: “The relationship between Mr. Bennet and Lizzie was always my favorite part of the book. It was, for me growing up, the love story in the book; and I would weep whenever I reread it and would get to the bit where Lizzie tells Mr. Bennet that Darcy is the best man she has ever known. It is such an important part of the whole female fantasy of the story — the favorite daughter who idolizes her father above all men and then, when he fails to protect Lydia from herself, is exposed as a mere human being.” Update: Find her answers to a hundred questions in a PDF document at Jennifer Ehle Fan Blog.

        • Although she often believed to be British, [Jennifer] actually was born and raised in North Carolina. Both her parents are well-known. Her father, John Ehle, is a novelist while her mother, Rosemary Harris (above with Jennifer in a recent photo) is an acclaimed actress.
        • Jennifer Ehle played George Clooney’s girlfriend in Michael Clayton, although no one will see her performance. In Entertainment Weekly, George weakly explains the reason why her role was cut: “We shot it with Jennifer Ehle — she gave a wonderful performance,” George Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. “And the more we did it, we realized you have to isolate this character more. And having a girlfriend, he’s not in as much trouble.” George then wrote Jennifer a note to apologise for being cut. “I didn’t cut it, but I still felt bad about it.”

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        Have you noticed? Keen observers of Mansfield Park 1983 will have recognized Sylvestra Le Touzel. She played Fanny Price all those years ago, and appeared as Mrs. Allen in the 2007 version of Northanger Abbey.


        And Nicholas Farrell, who played staid and moral Edmund Bertrum in 1983, appeared as the gregarious Mr. Musgrove in last week’s Persuasion.

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        In Jane Austen’s words, Henry Tilney, the hero of Northanger Abbey, seemed to be about “four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.”

        In addition he came from a respectable family in Gloucestershire. A second son, he had just recently been ordained. Even more attractive than his respectability are his sense of humor, his close relationship with his sister, and the fact that he can make such insightful statements as this one:

        Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

        Click here to read Oh, Henry, a wonderful post about Mr. Tilney. Austenprose also quotes our fabulous Henry. No wonder our young Catherine lost her heart to this charming but wise young man.

        Catherine, NA’s heroine, is sweet, adorable, and unworldly. As she reads her favorite gothic novels, she can imagine herself in the same perilous situations as the fictional heroines. Her imagination is so vivid that her unsupported suspicions about Henry’s mother’s death places her in an awkward situation with the young man who has stolen her heart. Catherine’s infatuation with Henry is such that her flattery flatters his ego, and he starts to fall in love with her. When General Tilney boots Catherine unceremoniously out of Northanger Abbey, unchaperoned and in the middle of the night, Henry’s eyes are opened to his father’s unpardonable behavior. He sees that in one sense, Catherine was right about his father’s monstrous behavior.

        As for Catherine, who in this world has not met a young coltish miss who suddenly grows up and fits this description by Jane?:

        At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls; her complexion improved, her features were softened by plumpness and colour, her eyes gained more animation, and her figure more consequence. Her love of dirt gave way to an inclination for finery, and she grew clean as she grew smart; she had now the pleasure of sometimes hearing her father and mother remark on her personal improvement. “Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl – she is almost pretty today,” were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

        In fact, these two characters are so likable, that one tends to forget that Jane wrote Northanger Abbey as a spoof of the Gothic novel so wildly popular at the turn of the 19th century. For an excellent review of the upcoming Masterpiece Classic presentation this Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, visit Remotely Connected and read Heather Laurence’s and Natalie Zee Drieu’s excellent thoughts on this film adaptation.

        Read my other Northanger Abbey posts here.

        Update: Arti just reminded me of the Andrew Davies interview yesterday, which I forgot to include. Click here to enter Arti’s site, Ripple Effects, and read the interview. You can also find Mr. Davies NPR interview on Jane Austen Today. Click here to listen.

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