Masterpiece Review: Emma, Part 3

C: So what did you guys think of the final hour of the BBC/WGBH’s Emma?  (See our reviews of parts 1 & 2 here and here.)  My friends complained about the lack of kissing, and I do agree there could have been more, but I was nonetheless highly satisfied with the conclusion. Mr. Knightley and Emma’s romance has been played out so convincingly through the series and their avowal of love fit right in.

P: Interesting! I thought there was just the right amount of kissing; I’ll take one gentle, intimate, we-mean-business kiss with no awkward nibbling motions to get past first (I’m looking at you, Persuasion!) any day.

C: Ugh, yes! I still have flashbacks of that Persuasion kiss, and they’re not pretty.

P: And, er, the rest of the installment was satisfactory, as well. Heh.

E: While I did perhaps expect a little more kissing, I thought what we got was really very nice.  I love the way Miller sighed and shuddered like a puppy when Emma puts her hands on his face.  That was super sweet.  And I like that she takes the lead there; it makes for good balance.  But “I find I do not know what to think?”  What on earth sort of line is that?  Some how, that does not fit under my definition of a lady always saying just what she ought.  Not that I could suggest the perfect line off the top of my head, mind you, but I’m sure I could come up with better on reflection.

C: My favorite moment was actually not the proposal itself but right after, when a distraught Emma comes running into Donwell to cry: “You know I love you and I always will, but I can never marry you! That is all” and rush out again. Adorable.

E: I enjoyed that so much.  His reaction is priceless. He flaps a bit like a fish before following her.  That’s quite an excellent speech, the one he makes about moving in with her.

P: That was my absolute favorite moment, too. Perfectly situated and hilariously executed! Emma and Knightley have just had these wonderful quiet moments during which neither one is able to encompass his or her feelings in words (Knightley going so far as to huff adorkably, ‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more,’) and Emma comes tearing in, hurling protestations of love and crying doom on their connection in a single breath! I felt for Emma, really I did, but it didn’t stop me from barking with laughter!

My second favorite moment is the one where Emma quietly contemplates reupholstering Mr. Knightley’s empty chair. She’s so used to seeing him sitting there that she’s almost forgotten what the chair looks like empty. What a sweet indication of just how thoroughly Knightley has already become integrated into Emma’s family.

E: Isn’t that lovely?  Totally apocryphal, but I don’t mind that in the least.

P: I also loved the scene where Emma quietly eases her father’s anxieties about the impeding trip to Box Hill – the way she thanks him for loving her enough to keep her close after her mother’s death and answers his complaints about her ‘ill-advised’ journey. She does plan to go, she tells him, ‘and what is more, I give you notice, I fully intend to come back.’ This is Emma using her brazenness for good, not evil.

C: I thought it was an interesting choice to introduce that self-aware moment for Mr. Woodhouse, where he acknowledges that he is irrational.  It exemplifies a larger trend in this adaptation of rounding people out, making them feel more real.

E: It’s true – it’s an entirely different style than that of the excellent Paltrow/Northam version, which helps justify the remake.

C: Speaking of  Box Hill: worst party of the Regency Period, or worst party ever? No wonder Emma made a social gaffe, when no one else was even making an attempt to carry on polite conversation.

P: Intolerable party, what with everyone everywhere making everyone else uncomfortable. I mean, how many kinds of awkward can we pack into one picnic? Frank is being overly intimate, Harriet and Mr. Elton would rather not be anywhere near each other, Mrs. Elton is self-righteous, Miss Bates is dithering, and several people seem to be feeling sorry for themselves. Cute clothes, though! I loved Harriet’s peach calico dress with her black hat ribbon, the crisp tucks in Jane Fairfax’s white sleeves–

E: Yes!  I noticed that too – those sleeves were wonderfully made!

P: …and, yes, horrid Mrs. Elton’s bright orange pelisse. It is very humbling, let me tell you, to discover that you have Mrs. Elton’s taste in clothes. But, uh, what were we talking about again?

C: Box Hill!  The “badly done” scene was the one point where, I’m afraid, Jonny Lee Miller simply did not stack up against Jeremy Northam at all. I liked how throughout most of this series he and Emma bickered in the way friends do when they’re totally secure with each other, but here he acted like a bad-tempered father yelling at his child. It made me unhappy. Her reaction, at least, came off well though.

E: Huh.  Now I’m going to have to watch that scene again.  I wasn’t any more offended by that than usual – I think that’s a hard thing to bring across, scolding without being a scold.   I really have to watch the 1996 movie again, I think.  You know, for academic purposes.

C: You should.  Northam is just… perfect there.  Mmm.

P: I can’t speak well to the comparison between Northam and Johnny Lee Miller, because it’s been years and years since I saw the other Emma, but that scene also gave me pause. For reasons of my own, there are few things I find less attractive than a man in a fit of temper, and I did think Knightley crossed a line into surliness when he confronted Emma about her treatment of Miss Bates.

C: Exactly – and that’s all the more problematic because, while he treats her as an equal, in any comparison of power he has it over her.

P: All the same, I wondered if this moment of harshness was (or was meant to be, anyway) the natural consequence of the way they’ve portrayed Knightley throughout the series. This Knightley is amiable enough, but prone to little outbursts of frustration whenever Emma pushes his buttons. (Gentlemanliness served with a side of crankiness could very well be the Knightley family temperament). In fact, though Knightley has been in the right during many of their little spats, he acknowledges in the end that few women would put up with his scolding. I got the feeling that Knightley went to Emma intending to put his objections much more kindly, but he lost his temper at her pretense to ignorance of Miss Bates’ feelings. A case of two wrongs not making a right, as it were. Does it make the scene more or less acceptable if Knightley’s conduct is not meant to be altogether admirable? I suppose my interpretation unseats Knightley as Highbury’s moral compass and infallible pillar of rectitude, but it humanizes him as well.

C: That’s true… because of course it is motivated out of jealousy of Frank as much as the ostensible disapproval of her comment to Miss Bates.  In a way, knowing Mr. Knightley can behave badly out of jealousy makes him more real.  Yet… I don’t like to think of him as the guy who gets mean because he’s upset.

E: Did you think he was mean?  Or just that it’s mean to say you’re upset about one thing when your anger is really motivated by something else?  Because I didn’t think he stepped across the line into mean in his delivery of the content.  Bah.  I’m totally going to have to watch that scene again.

P: There’s an interesting parallel between the way Knightley scolds Emma at the picnic, and the earlier scene in which Emma does much the same thing, scolding Frank for forgetting his social advantages. Emma begins the conversation as her usual merry self and tries to deflect Frank’s complaining with friendly objections. But his sour mood erodes her resistance until she very nearly lashes out at him verbally. In both scenes the offending party is treading on something very dear to the offended: Frank on Emma’s belief in her community’s good society, and Emma on Knightley’s generally high view of her character.

C: The way they played Frank Churchill in this adaptation made him especially hard to forgive; in fact, I was a little annoyed at everyone for forgiving all his manipulation and duplicity so easily.

E: I tell you, Ewan McGregor was the only thing that could save Frank from being a rotten spoiled brat.  Mr. Knightley is never more right than in his assessment of Frank.  And this Frank is the worst Frank of all.  I hate him.  I really do.

C: At least Emma got in that shot about him treating Jane better in the future – still, he totally didn’t deserve a smiling Jane to come running out to dance with him in the street after his aunt died!

P: I officially feel bad for bagging on Jane Fairfax last time.

C: That’s right!  You see, she’s not a sociopath after all, just a young woman in the unfortunate position of being engaged to a creep and having to keep it secret until the woman who raised him dies.  Incidentally, Emma’s comment on Mrs. Churchill’s death was the funniest line of the night: “I am so very happy at this dreadful news.”

P: “It is, of course, very sad, but it is also extremely interesting!” That whole montage was a hoot!

E: Loved it.  Back to Frank, though – I still can’t believe his whole “you never thought this was our story, did you?” line at the church.  Insufferable!  I think it’s meant to come off as solicitous, but it strikes me as selfishness masquerading as concern.  He wants to know that everyone else is wrong for censuring him.

P: I probably despise Frank as much as anyone, especially since he doesn’t even show himself aware that he’s done anything wrong, but more than anything what I can’t understand is Jane. Why is she so delighted when Frank is suddenly free to marry? For months, she’s been watching him lounge with his head in another woman’s lap! And why did Frank make such a bitter point about hasty connections, right in front of Jane, if he still wanted to marry her as much as ever? Ah, well. We can only wish them happy.

C: He’s mad at her in that scene because they had a fight and she accepted the governess position, effectively breaking up with him.  But we never got the explanation of why, when he could marry her immediately, all her unhappiness with his behavior melted away.

E: I think the 1996 movie did a better job of showing what Jane and Frank have in common – love of music, for instance – and hinting that they have a relationship. It’s all well and good to utterly fool Emma, but I feel like the audience should have some clue, don’t you?

C: I think what the audience really needs is to feel Frank’s charm even while we see his flaws and disapprove him – as the characters seem to do.  Though it’s hard to blame the screenwriters, when I don’t think even Austen succeeds in creating that effect.

I got scolded for laughing during the tender scene where Emma realizes her love for Mr. Knightley, but as she pauses in her walk and the voiceover announces her revelation all I could think of was Cher Horowitz declaring “I love Josh!” as fountains and colored lights suddenly spring up in the background. Anyone else have a Clueless flashback?

E: I’m afraid that was just you — but now I want to rewatch that movie, too!  RIP, Brittany Murphy. You were a good actress before you were a tiny bleached blonde, and we liked you, just as you were.

P: Harriet Smith is the perfectest punishment for Emma’s hubris. Poor, soft-pated loyal little lamb! Is it just me, or is she the only one remaining, Emma included, who still believes in Emma’s vast powers of love divination?

E: Now that one’s not just you. (Not that you’re the same you. You know what I mean.)

C: I think even Emma said as much!

P: My interest in Emma and Knightley as a couple peaked significantly during this part (as it should be, I suppose), but as I reflect back on the series as a whole, I think that we seldom observe a romance which speaks more directly to what a given pair of characters will be like when they are married. It’s almost like we’ve already seen into Emma and Knightley’s marriage – their spats, their confidences, the wry but gentle way they cooperatively make Old Woodhouse easy.

C: So nice, compared to all those period dramas where the main couple spend 70% of the time not talking to each other!

E: I agree, and I think that was possibly the point of the lack of kissing.  There’s just a rightness to them being together which surpasses what one usually sees.  And it was always there, before either one of them knew it.  I loved the ending, I think – Emma’s entry into a wider world.   The white cliffs gave me the suggestion of a wedding cake, with the two figures on top; I wonder if that was the filmmaker’s intent, or if it’s just a felicitous accident?

C: I didn’t notice but it’s a lovely thought.  Overall, I felt this adaptation brought a new groundedness to the relationships and a believability to the characters – and it got stronger as it went on.  It wasn’t mannered in the way these films can sometimes be, and yet it wasn’t untrue to the time period.  While the Paltrow film may be more comedic and romantic, this was charming and felt real in a way that no version I’ve seen has before.  It’s one to watch again… preferably with a nice cup of tea.


5 comments on “Masterpiece Review: Emma, Part 3

  1. thepresidentrix says:


    • C says:

      White cliffs encourage reckless eating! If one MUST go to see them, one should take very large napkin to obscure the view!

      • E says:

        Don’t be absurd. One should never go to see them. This is exactly the reason one should never leave home – because then one would of course be confronted by monstrous images of baked goods!

  2. Gina says:

    Interesting that you mention the kiss — when she put her hands on his face and moved in, I was thinking, “Would a 19th-century young lady really do that?” But Amy Dorrit also got a little handsy when she and Arthur Clennam finally got together, now that I think of it.

    I too really appreciated how well they rounded out the characters, though I’ve heard that some diehard Janeites had mixed feelings about it.

    • C says:

      I suspect that girls who really wanted to kiss men probably did, just as I suspect people sometimes did kiss in public, in spite of the fact that it wouldn’t have been considered polite. Austen would never write it that way, though 🙂

      As to rounding out the characters, I think it speaks to an intelligent adaptation for the different medium. The narrator’s dry, ironic detachment is what makes the book so great, but it’s hard to carry that tone across on screen. And, especially in a miniseries, snickering at the 2D characters would get old. That’s my guess as to why they did it, anyway.

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