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"Emma Woodhouse was born with the sun shining—to a father who always expected the worst. One day the worst did happen." Definitely a clever opening line, but does it really top Jane Austen's: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Not for this viewer, but then, I am one of those Austen purists that has to see a very good reason for tampering with the author’s excellent words, and, even though the narrator reads those opening lines with good effect in the voiceover, the backstory that screenwriter Sandy Welch chooses to give us about Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax (that their mothers died when they were children) seems unnecessary and out of place. One might suppose it’s there for the benefit of viewers who haven’t read the novel, setting up an explanation for the characters’ later behavior, but it distracts from what is, after all, Emma’s story, and takes away some of the mystery.
I must confess that I found myself feeling dissatisfied with the first episode, finding Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley too close in real chronological age (27-1/2 and 37) and appearance, (even though she looks older), to create the necessary tension as they should as Emma and Mr. Knightley. I like Jonny Lee Miller (even though I couldn’t erase the thought of his marriage to Angelina Jolie, when she wrote his name on her white shirt in her blood at their wedding). He’s nice-looking, pleasant, and a good actor, but in the first episode, just didn’t have enough gravitas to carry off the part, so it seemed we were watching equals sparring, not a young woman being scolded by an older man. The first sight of Emma in a white dress and curls was silly. Attempting to create a picture of her as a young girl, when she isn’t, didn’t work; her face is too old, and then she wore the same dress at her sister’s wedding, which one assumes took place some little time later. What were they thinking? Then, there was all that hand-waving . . . would a young woman in Emma’s position have behaved in such an indecorous way? This would not have been appropriate for a cultured young woman of her day and I found the almost constant hand-waving and facial contortions of the first long episode annoying, so I was prepared to find this adaptation of Emma one of the less satisfactory ones. But more on that later.
The other characters are almost flawlessly played by actors who know what they are about. The wonderful Sir Michael Gambon is marvelous as Mr. Woodhouse, one of the best performances I’ve seen. Often, Mr. Woodhouse seems a selfish, egocentric old man and I don’t find him amusing, as many do, but irritating. This performance brings out the humor I’m sure Jane Austen intended. However, I find the modernization and addition of lines like his comment after Miss Taylor’s wedding when the children are eating cake, unnecessary, even while funny and true: “Cake is not good for them. Makes them so excited.” Today’s screenwriters can’t resist tampering with the master . . .
Jodhi May’s Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston is excellent and, for once, the right age. Casting directors often forget that she is a woman young enough to have a child and the part is taken by someone heavier and approaching middle-age. Frank Churchill remarks that he had expected someone older and he finds a young attractive woman, which she should be. Louise Dylan’s Harriet Smith is perfect, with just the right amount of silliness and gullibility, a willing foil for Emma, but with a little more sensitivity than is often displayed. Tamsin Greig does a fine job as Miss Bates, less annoying than usual, probably because she does not prattle on as is usually the case with actresses in this part. Some reviewers found this a fault of the director and screenwriter, and it well may be, but for the viewer, it was probably a welcome relief. She is in the novel to show us the state of unmarried
The Eltons are marvelously ridiculous. Augusta Elton is well-played by Christina Cole, fresh from her triumph as Caroline Bingley in Lost in Austen. The close-ups on her face as she announces she will take over everything and every event in Highbury make for excellent theater. Mr. Elton is, as someone remarked at a discussion I attended, “mad, bad and dashing” (great line—wish I had said it myself), quite the Byronic hero, handsomer and more virile than the usual Mr. Eltons, but just as greedy, a quite interesting casting.
Jane Fairfax is pretty and insipid, as most actresses playing her part tend to be and one wonders, as always, what attracted Frank Churchill to her in the first place. Will he cheat on her? Rupert Evans is a superb Frank Churchill, with just the right amount of snarfiness, flirting, teasing, making catty comments (can men be catty?), lying, being hateful to Jane (why would she want him?), being an ungrateful sot. All in all, the casting director did an excellent job.
The houses, gardens, scenery in general, are superb, and, as always in these BBC productions, glorious to look at. The choreography is excellent, the music and color adding a great deal to the production. Costuming was somewhat underwhelming, in that Emma always looked somewhat messy in her day-to-day wear: drab, wrinkled, not dressed as someone aware of her position, (as her language and behavior indicate she is), would have dressed, bonnets rather masculine in style. Even at the ball she did not look as well as some others did.
And that brings me to my conclusion. As I mentioned earlier, after Episode One, I was prepared not to like this production, and then found myself being drawn in. The last two episodes improved, or perhaps I began to like Jonny Lee Miller more as Mr. Knightley. He improved in gravitas, grew into his part, and Emma, in the scene after Mr. and Mrs. Elton came to visit and she raged off, talking to herself, ending by flopping on her bed (an excellent scene), became more likeable. But it was in the scene at the ball, the scene in which Emma and Mr. Knightley dance together, (the most romantic scene in the film), that the viewer falls under the spell of the piece, believes in the romance, sees them falling in love with each other, or realizing that they are, and realizes that this production is, after all, very good indeed. Angelina, eat your heart out.
-Diane Capitani, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2010