First, it must be said that Emma is not one of my favorite of Jane's works. I am an unabashed Janite and am way too nitpicky, particularly in anything that messes with Jane (i.e. the not-so-great difference in Emma and Knightly's ages). And this miniseries was obviously not adapted by the maestro, Andrew Davies.
That said, I did quite enjoy this new, and oh-so-desperately-needed*, long miniseries BBC adaptation of Emma. I loved it, in fact. Though, of course, when does the BBC ever, when it joins up with Jane, fail me? (I am, of course, ignoring anything made before 1995)
The miniseries was beautiful, stunningly shot in the perfect locations, places where you just wanted to curl up and eat strawberries. The writing was almost perfect, using the best of Jane's direct quotes ("If I loved you less, I could talk about it more.") with bonus points for the narration, completely using her stage directions (i.e. her infamous glances and deeply meaningful body language), flushing out scenes that needed it for the screen and providing much-needed momentum to the action. I particularly liked the narrator of the beginning who helped to navigate through the convoluted exposition with Jane's trademark irony and character. It reminded me of the narrator of Tom Jones, and Jane would have loved that comparison. Best of all, I loved how the film pulled out the coming-of-age theme, shown in Emma's near-imprisonment at home compared to the other characters that come and go and travel, while she stays in her little world, comfortable, but a little stir crazy. This was a refreshing and necessary twist which propelled the miniseries into greatness. Rather than laughing at Emma and her antics (though, of course, it does that, too), the film crawls inside of Emma's world and looks at her with realism and compassion. That is what Jane is all about.
Yes, this is a different Emma. And I like her more than any other Emma before. She is natural and realistic, silly, but delightful. Her wide blue eyes take in the world, laughing at it and totally misunderstanding it with cheery, energetic glee. She is a wonderful little conniving snob, but she manages to never be obnoxious or hateful, as Emma could so easily become. We sadly understand how this vivacious woman with a wild imagination and biting tongue could make the mistakes she does, but she never allows us to pity her, nor to forgive her bad behavior. We truly watch her grow up, finally understanding her emotional world, both in terms of herself and the people around her. When Emma takes those final steps into the distance at the seaside, tears came into my eyes at her triumph. She has moved beyond her little world in more ways than one.
Her leading man, Mr. Knightly, is gorgeous and just everything you would want in a Jane-man. He is the perfect example of how the miniseries takes the characters of the novel and infuses them with life and dimension. Knightly walks out of the woodwork, infusing his relationship with Emma with both annoying didacticism and charming teasing. As Emma grows more grown up through the series, he becomes young again. Though, as they are coming together, the tension grows between them. Johnny Lee Miller did a great job of turning Mr. Knightly into the gentleman hero.
But, appropriately enough, Knightly and Emma are quite nearly upstaged by Frank and Jane. Woo. I loved this Frank Churchill. There was such chemistry in that love triangle of Emma-Frank-Knightly. Frank was totally flirty and charming, and had that dark, immature brooding side. And you could tell that it was directed in real love and affection for Jane. I was totally rooting for him and Jane. Jane was also right on target. She was so sweet and quiet and perfect that you wanted to puke all over her. Yes, I internally cheered as he swung her triumphantly around the town center.
Mrs. Elton was also absolutely wonderful. It was as if she stepped out of the book. I so wanted to punch her right in the face. That digging for compliments, snobbish, sneering, conniving, warped mirror of Emma. The actress has been in about a hundred things, but she was born for that part.
I wish the same could be said of the rest of the supporting cast. What in the hell was wrong with Miss Bates? I've seen that actress on Black Books, and she can do broad comedy, so what happened there? Did she take one look at Sophie Thompson's amazing performance, know it could never be topped, and just phone in her performance? I liked that the other characters were made more likeable and more real, but Miss Bates didn't work at all. On the page, she was silly and her babblings tedious, but you still loved her. Here, she was about as quiet and sweet as Jane. It made Emma's later "dull things" insult completely cruel and out of nowhere.
And what the heck happened to Harriet? The whole series she looked like some tragic Dickensian waif rather than the young, spirited, silly, heartsick teenager of Austen. She was pitiful rather than melodramatic.
That said, there were some top-notch scenes. I loved the "slighting" scene at the ball. You truly fall in love with Knightly there. He totally can step up on the pedestal next to Tilney and Brandon and Darcy for that one. What followed was probably the most romantic dance scene in any Jane Austen adaptation. The "dull things" scene was done perfectly, as well, with everything told in the expressions of the characters. Emma, particularly, was right on, showing her laughing, thoughtless comment to her horrified and embarrassed realization. It is not easy to take well-known scenes and play them on the screen with realism, but the cast hit the nail on the hammer there. I missed the carriage (and Emma hiding her emotion) with the remonstration scene, but I loved Knightly's expression of his disappointment in Emma. It was done with feeling more for her than Miss Bates, and that was perfect.
Oh, man, and I totally punched the air on the scenes that followed. Mr. Knightly nearly kissing Emma's hand, then deciding against it. Jane would have been hooting along with me. Dead-on-accurate! I loved Emma's face when she realizes that she loves Mr. Knightly: that horrified smile. So perfect. That was the moment when she grew up. That was the moment when she came of age. And what chick didn't love the proposal scene? Come on. Squee with me here, people.
Watching Jane Austen miniseries/adaptations reminds me of watching a sporting event. (Odd, isn't it, how often antithesis are really synonyms). Maybe that came from Bridget Jones, or maybe from that first watching of P&P on Super Bowl Sunday in college. We all know how it is playing out, but we still stand up and cheer when they score a goal. So, finally scores.
Eye Candy Factor: A-
Perceived Jane Austen Approval Rating: B-
GoldenMoonRose Approval Rating: A-
*All we had before was a painfully mediocre Hollywood version, an older version with an ugly and lifeless Knightly, and Clueless, which was perfect, except for the fact that it didn't directly quote Emma. And something seemed to be off on their period gowns. By the way, I wonder if one reason I loved this Emma was because she looks so much like my beloved sister/friend, Hez.