Friday, April 9, 2010

Thoughts on BBC's Emma

Beware of the SPOILERS.

I finally got around to watching BBC's new adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. This is the only time I miss having television - when all my friends are watching long-awaited miniseries as they air and I have to wait to get the DVD from Netflix. But this was well worth the wait.

This is the third Emma adaptation I have seen, the other two being the Kate Beckinsale miniseries and the Gwynneth Paltrow movie. For some reason I could never explain, I was more picky about screen interpretations of Emma than any other Jane Austen film I've watched - some of you may know that while I love the Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice, I adore the '05 film with Keira Knightley, despite its flaws and condensed adaptation. As far as I'm concerned, Lizzy is open to interpretation. As Keira Knightley said on the DVD special features, girls have a hard time seeing actresses play Lizzy because they like to envision themselves as the character. But who wants to be Emma? She's spoiled, selfish and blind to the true feelings of others, and even her own. Nevertheless, I care more about her story and how it's portrayed than any of Austen's other heroines.

It may be because I've had an Austen-worthy love story with the novel itself. When I first read it, I hated it. Most emphatically. I was fourteen and inclined to be critical. To me, it read like 400 pages of petty, yawn-inducing village gossip, with flat characters who made long speeches full of words no one would ever use in real conversation. And the romance - ugh! To my fourteen-year-old self, nothing was more dissatisfying than for the young, pretty heroine of the story to end up with the old, cranky and OLD brother-of-the-brother-in-law. It was the first of Jane's books that I read, and I did re-read it after I had read all of her books and grown used to her "voice" (and even learned to thoroughly enjoy her sharp humor in Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey). I wrote a post about that reading on my other blog. I enjoyed it more, and forgave Mr. Knightley for being 16 years older than Emma, but I never called it my favorite.

When I reread the book last month and then watched the miniseries, one of Emma's lines (not in the book) to Mr. Knightley struck me: "I examined my own heart... and there you were." Yes, I did. I examined my own heart, and there was Emma. I've stopped fighting it and now I know it's my favorite. Which explained why I was always so critical of the movies, from the very start.

I could make long lists about what was wrong with the Beckinsale and Paltrow versions. For Beckinsale: Unappealing and detached leads was the most noticeable thing. I couldn't get interested in them. Olivia Williams was a perfect Jane Fairfax, looks-wise, but I just couldn't bring myself to care about Emma and Mr. Knightley. Paltrow: Jeremy Northam made a good Knightley, and there was a lot of good humor, but Harriet looked way too old, Jane looked foreign (and I can't even recall her saying ANYTHING). Miss Bates was excellent, but Mr. Woodhouse boring, and Frank Churchill wore the most awful wig I have ever seen in my time on this beautiful earth. And again, Emma, the title character, though far more engaging than Beckinsale's portrayal, fell woefully short.

Like I said, not everyone likes Emma. Yes, she "unites some of the best blessings of existence," yet those very blessings (wealth, intelligence, beauty) turn against her and make us frustrated with her spoiled ways and her ignorance of feelings and thoughtlessness towards others. But at the end of the day, all of Austen's heroines (with the exception of Fanny Price, who I have always found slightly unbearable) are keenly human, including Emma. I think any actress who takes on this role has a duty to make us understand this, put all her faults right there for all to see, yet make us love her all the more for them.

So BBC's Emma was pretty much perfection, as far as I'm concerned. I'm sorry to make this long blog post even longer, but you must allow me to list some of the reasons why I love it:

The leads were engaging and loveable. Romola Garai was everything I could have asked for as Emma, and I enjoyed Johnny Lee Miller's performance much more than I expected to.

All the supporting actors were amazing. From the incredible Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, who always seems to get shoved to the side in other Emma films, to Miss Bates, to the Knightleys in London (it's too easy to make them boring), to pompous Mr. Elton and the farmer Mr. Martin. I enjoyed watching every single one of them. Also, the minute I saw Harriet Smith, I got excited. I'm not exaggerating when I say she was exactly how I pictured her - those cute, school-girlish curls and all. And I loved how the way she spoke was so much in contrast with Emma's clear, precise voice.

Mrs. Elton was maddening. I must say, reading the novel for the first time, Mrs. Elton was the only character that roused any feeling in me at all. I do believe she (and my stubborn determination) was the reason I bothered to finish the book at all. (What if I hadn't? I may have given up on Austen completely!) Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton, from the minute she made her grand entrance in Highbury's church, had me pounding on my pillow in mingled exasperation and amusement. Even more hilarious are Emma's reactions to her (look at her face when Mrs. Elton calls Mr. Woodhouse her "old beau").

Emma's costumes had character. All the costumes did, really. Jane nearly always wore blue, Mrs. Elton was always "over-trimmed," Mr. Woodhouse often wore a warm scarf in his fear of a cold, and Emma had her own themes of bright colors and pairing coral and blue together. Who would have thought it could look that good?

And finally...

Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. I never cared a great deal for their story until this miniseries. Jane was adorable, and Frank was... okay, he was adorable too. When I didn't want to slap his face, that is. Box Hill, anyone? Oh my goodness, I never imagined how excessive "flirting excessively" could be. If I could have slapped him for Jane, I would have. My younger sister aptly nicknamed him "the little stinker." Yet, near the end, when Frank and Jane get their very own reunion scene (!), I couldn't have felt happier for them. In the book, it's such a shock to Emma that you never really see how well they are suited to one another (though I believe Mrs. Weston makes an observation to that effect).

There are so many other things I would love to say. Things about the script and adaptation and more about characters, and all the little things I noticed and appreciated. But this blog post is already long enough.


  1. YAY!! You finally posted it, m'dear! AAHHH...I heart this post, even though I've read it before! So well-written! Heehee...I totally agree about Emma's face when Mrs. Elton keeps talking about her "old beau" and "caro sposo"...HA! (and possibly one of the funniest scenes of Emma's Mrs. E rant :P )

  2. What a lovely post! I recently finished watching this version, and I'd love to hear the rest of your thoughts on it.

  3. Portia - You want MORE!? :D I may very well do another (more fun, snarky post) about the miniseries.

    Rosey - YOU MUST. Once you told me that I must see the Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice (along with about a million other people). You told me for my own good. I watched it, and agree that I am a better person and a better Jane Austen fan for having done so. I am telling you, for your own good, watch this Emma. ;)

  4. Hmmm, well you have gotten me interested in this and I will watch it, putting aside my skepticism of the actor they have doing Mr. Knightley... (Jeremy Northam was the PERFECT Mr. Knightley and so I'm very biased against anyone else...)

  5. I was skeptical of JLM as well, Elena. I was very critical of him, at first. I kept saying, "Why is he so short?" "Why does his head look so small?" "Why does he keep making funny faces?" :P The funny faces are hardest to get used to. Sometimes he squints. But the more I watched him and rewatched him as Mr. Knightley, the more I liked him. I think Jeremy Northam was the best part of the Gwynneth Paltrow Emma, but I've grown very fond of Johnny Lee Miller's Knightley too.