Masterpiece Review: Emma

C: Some famous person said “comparisons are odious.”  I say, “comparisons are inevitable.” The Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma in 1996 was one of the reasons I started reading Jane Austen; I wanted to see it, but I wanted to read the book first.  Without Emma I might not be the costume drama obsessive I am today.  It’s by no means a perfect adaptation of Austen’s novel, but it’s a very stylish, charming, and enjoyable one.  So when I heard the BBC/Masterpiece would be filming a new version, it was natural to question: did we really need it? (click here to find out!)

E: I too had some reservations going into this new miniseries, and top of the list was Jonny Lee Miller.  I adored him as Eli Stone, but Jeremy Northam has long been my picture of Mr. Knightley – firm, upright, angular – and Miller couldn’t be further from that image.  As our friend the Presidentrix put it, he’s wooby.  And Mr. Knightley is not wooby.

And yet, I think I love him.  And I love what a miniseries does for their relationship.  The conversation about Harriet Smith and Robert Martin was lifted almost verbatim from the book, and is sheer, revelatory perfection. They’re utterly, realistically relaxed with each other, and I love that.  And completely frank, as well.

C: One of the tricky things about Emma, for a modern audience, is the sixteen-year age gap between Emma and Mr. Knightley.  The Quibbling Siblings are friends with a lovely couple with that exact age gap, but it can’t be denied that 21 and 37 are pretty wide apart.  1996 Emma solved this problem by making Knightley charming and devastatingly attractive.  Johnny Lee Miller isn’t devastating, so I wondered how they’d pull it off.  You nailed it, E – they do it by making their relationship one of relaxed familiarity, and essential respect and value for each other underlying the perpetual disagreements.  The part where Emma made him really angry and was instantly anxious to “be friends” again demonstrated that well.

E: Romola Garai I rather expected to love, and I do.  I didn’t expect her, however, to be a glowing mix of Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck with Drew Barrymore; mischievous, impetuous, sunny and spunky and kind.  And she is kind.  She’s utterly wrong-headed much of the time, but she’s a good person and essentially well intentioned.  I don’t think I expected that, either.  I adore the scenes where she soothes over a friend’s wounded feelings.

C: She’s been one of my favorite young actresses for a while now (her most widely known film is probably Atonement, but costume drama fans will also know her from Daniel Deronda and I Capture the Castle) so I was looking forward to her Emma.  She certainly makes a lot of wild faces in this, which takes some getting used to, but I am enjoying the exuberance of her performance.

E: Speaking of feelings which need soothing, Michael Gambon is the most utterly delicious Mr. Woodhouse ever.

C: I had my doubts about Dumbledore as Mr. Woodhouse – Gambon doesn’t exactly give off a frail vibe! – but I should have had faith in his acting prowess, as he’s carrying it off.  The character’s written extremely well, too – lots of funny bits.

E: I’d go so far as to say that thus far, Mr. Woodhouse is my favorite character in the entire affair (certainly in the book).  How much did you love watching everyone pretend to eat the gruel?  Or the fight over wedding cake?  Or Isabella and her father tutting over their doctors and who was better?  John Knightley actually got to be a character here (grumpy and acute as he is in the book), which was pleasant.

C: Hm… got to disagree with you there.  I thought he came off as hard to get a read on.  Why is he so angry about everything?  We don’t know.

E: It’s not Rachel Portman’s score for the Paltrow version–

C: (One of my favorite film scores ever.)

E: –but I find I quite like the music.  Excellent use of the cello.  Also, I think I’d like to live in Hartfield.  It’s so cheery!  the gardens are delightful!  But Donwell Abbey looks more than a bit drear.  No wonder Mr. Knightley is always coming over.

I thought the voice-over in the beginning was interesting – they made of the start a dark fairy tale about motherless children, and while it’s true I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  There’s narrative aplenty in Austen, none of which is in a male voice.  I was happy when that left off.  Not that any of it was inaccurate, it just took me out of the moment.

C: It didn’t occur to me to be bothered by the narrator being male.  I liked the idea of the opening scene – the story really is about damaged children, and it hints at how their lives will later be interwoven – but I know from a friend I was watching it with that, for those unfamiliar with the plot, it was a very confusing beginning.  Who are all these people?  Are they related to each other?  How does Emma look the same age when her sister marries as she does when her sister has six children?

Overall I’m enjoying this, but I do have some quibbles with it, and I think they all come back to the direction.  Direction is something you’re not really supposed to notice; like editing, if it’s done well it creates a seemless effect.  But here it’s shaky on several points.  One is the pace.  The whole point of doing a miniseries should be to pack it a lot of extra plot and character development.  Instead, at least in the first hour, we got a lot of lingering shots of trees, and people walking!  The segment that shows Emma is lonely without Mrs. Weston was also dragged out beyond its emotional resonance, to the point where I was saying “okay, plot please!” And there are scenes where the dialogue is fine in itself but plays out extremely awkwardly – the worst was when Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston discussed Emma.  There was so much pausing and gazing in that scene that, if I didn’t know the plot of Emma, I’d have thought it was about Mr. Knightley’s tragic love for a married woman!

E: Hmm.  I don’t know.  I didn’t get any feeling that Mr. Knightley was pining for poor Miss Taylor.  I liked the emphasis on Miss Taylor (although I’m not sure I love the performance – it was easier to see Greta Scacchi as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mentor), and how Emma felt the lack of her; so many of her mistakes follow from that loneliness.

C: I am largely pleased with the casting, anyway.  This is the first Harriet to look just right for her role (sorry, Toni Collette) and Blake Ritson is a much better Mr. Elton than he was an Edmund Bertram.

E: Talk about damning with faint praise!

C: No, he’s great in this. Tamsin Greig doing a spot-on imitation of Sophie Thompson’s voice from the 96 Emma is bizarre, but I like how they’re showing the sadness that underlies Miss Bates’ nonstop chatter. Jodhi May (who, interestingly, played Romola Garai’s competition for Hugh Dancy’s Daniel Deronda) is lovely as her governess here.  And the actress playing Jane Fairfax, though not as radiant as Olivia Williams (who was the one good thing in the hideous and happily forgotten ’95 Emma miniseries), is much more suited to the timid role than the voluptuous Jane of the ’96 film.

E: I can’t quite decide how I feel about Jane, actually.  I’ve always thought of her as reserved and discrete, and put in a bad position by circumstances, but here she’s shy, and Miss Bates never lets her speak.  I have to think more on her.  I do agree about Miss Bates, however; she copies Sophie Thompson’s patter exactly, yet somehow with far more nuance.   I couldn’t agree more about Harriet and Mr. Elton, but I’m a bit disappointed in Frank Churchill.  Oh, he’s jovial and gossipy, alright (and has quite the elaborate hair cut) but he’s no Ewan McGregor.

C: Ugh, Ewan McGregor’s hair entirely prevents me from liking him in ’96 Emma!

E: Say what you will, but I think that, considering how invested with charm and mystery Frank is before we see him, he needs some serious McGregor-like magnetism to live up to the hype (and, of course, to be a credible rival to Mr. Knightley). But eek, Mrs. Elton is going to be the chick from Hex!  Blanche from Jane Eyre!  Yikes!

C: And the rival singer from Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  Christina Cole, otherwise known as The Witch in Everything British.

Well, overall I think it’s an engaging production so far.  The next two weeks may change my mind, or may be even better.  We shall see!

Emma, Part 2

Emma, Part 3

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4 comments on “Masterpiece Review: Emma

  1. myrna_nora says:

    “Christina Cole, otherwise known as The Witch in Everything British” — This is so true. She has a way of making me hate her in everything she does.

    • E says:

      It’s a pretty impressive talent, that. She’s quite gifted. And perfectly cast in that sense, although I’ve never imagined Mrs Elton as particularly pretty.

  2. Jessica Sison says:

    This is true about Christina Cole–there was her role in What a Girl Wants, and her role as an actual witch in Doctor Who’s “The Shakespeare Code.” She’s like the female Hans Matheson.

  3. MJSamuelson says:

    The woman playing Jane Fairfax here made me finally appreciate the character – in the ’96 Emma, we were looking at a horribly miscast actress and a severely miswritten character to boot. At least in this new one, we got age-appropriate casting and a Jane/Frank relationship that was utterly believable.

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