At last I get to review my favorite adaptation of Emma, the 2009 BBC miniseries. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed the first time I watched it. I thought the little prologue was cheesy (and they fudged with the timeline), Emma was too over-the-top, Jane Fairfax was too mousey, and that it just wasn’t all that special. But when I got to the third episode, everything changed-I started to love it! And when I got the DVD and rewatched it all, I appreciated the first two episodes more as well.
Being four hours long, this version has enough time to flesh out all the characters and storylines. Both the 1996 versions, being so short, had to obviously cut some stuff out. Either the Frank/Jane or the Harriet/Mr. Elton stuff got the shaft. This one does justice to both, plus more! We get to see a lot more of Robert Martin as well, and we even get to see him go ask Mr. Knightley’s advice as to whether to propose to Harriet. It follows pretty closely to the book, but it does make some changes and a lot of the dialogue is different.
The parallels between Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and Emma are stressed more than in any adaptation or the book. Mr. Knightley narrates the introduction with the three as children- when they all lose parent(s) and their lives are changed forever. Miss Bates decides to let Jane go live with the Campbells so she can have a better life, albeit Mrs. Bates was reluctant. Frank goes to live with his aunt and uncle, the Churchills. But Emma (and also Isabella though she’s not highlighted), being rich and privileged, gets to stay home with her loving governess, Miss Taylor. I found this narration a bit weird the first time I saw it. Both Jane and Frank happen to leave Highbury on the same day. In the book, IIRC, Frank left when he was two (so Jane and Emma would have only been babies if they were born at all!), and Jane stayed until she was nine. The age difference between Emma and Isabella also seems to be less than in the book, as the former is a teenager when her sister marries and actually claims this as her first match, before even the Westons. Also, Miss Campbell in this version is still only engaged to Mr. Dixon, not yet married. I’m not sure what the purpose of this was. Perhaps they thought it would be too scandalous to suggest he and Jane had a thing if he was already married? These are only nitpicks and I don’t mind these changes now. I thought it was a clever introduction, really. The only reason it bothered me was because it was different from the book, really!
Most of the cast is very good- some of my favorites of all the adaptations. The interplay between the various characters was excellent (in most cases). The Crown Ball scene was particularly well-done. The dances (all originals to this production) were really lively and fun. Emma and Knightley’s dance just oozed chemistry. I think I played back this scene three times on my latest rewatch. I could almost go so far as to say the miniseries is worth watching for this scene alone! I also think they got the Box Hill scene right (with the exception of Frank lounging on Emma’s lap!). Emma was clearly laughing and joking around and didn’t realize how hurtful her comment to Miss Bates was until it was too late.
Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse
She took some getting used to. Her deportment and mannerisms were not very ladylike. Her posture was pretty bad-constantly slouching. I thought her acting was a bit over the top at first, as well, always bugging her eyes out. But I think they did this to highlight her growth and maturity-she toned it down as the series went on. She was particularly excellent in her understated scenes. She did have the snobbiness and vanity as in the book, but she was loving and caring to her family and friends and you could tell she was well-meaning in all her meddling and matchmaking.
Jonny Lee Miller as George Knightley
He is, without a doubt, my favorite Mr. Knightley. John Carson was too fatherly, Jeremy Northam was too suave, Mark Strong was too harsh. Jonny Lee Miller achieved a perfectly balanced Knightley! He was attractive in a boyish way but still a bit on the rugged side- you could believe him as a gentleman farmer. He had great chemistry with Emma- they were clearly close, intimate friends but throughout the series it becomes obvious that his feelings for her are becoming something more and he’s struggling with it. He can be stern with her but you could tell he cared and they were both often stubborn in their arguments. And of course, they always made up afterwards.
Louise Dylan as Harriet Smith
Well, none of the Harriets have been brilliant but she wasn’t bad. She was young and cute and full of bloom. She was just a bit too dim. I know Harriet is quite naive and not all that intelligent in the book, but she’s really not as stupid as this miniseries makes her out to be! One thing that I really liked was having her clothing resemble Emma’s more and more throughout the series.
Rupert Evans as Frank Churchill
This Frank Churchill is a more rounded character than in the other versions or even in the book (where I don’t find him all that sympathetic). He doesn’t do anything but look stupid in a bad wig in the Paltrow version, and act creepy in the Beckinsale version. I don’t even remember what the actor looked like in the 1972 version! Frank is still a cad in this. His whole storyline with Jane is intact- he flirts with Emma, they fight, he teases about Mr. Dixon, etc. And, as in the book, he believes Emma to be as perceptive as she claims to be and almost confesses about his engagement to Jane. This version makes him seem troubled due to leaving home at a young age and while he’s not exactly “good,” he’s not evil either.
Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax
She was one of the weak points in the casting for me, sadly. Her acting was fine and all, but there was just one problem- she wasn’t good-looking enough. She wasn’t ugly by any means, but really, next to Romola Garai there’s no competition. How could Emma feel overshadowed by this mousey little thing? I think the unflattering hairstyle really did her no favors either. Olivia Williams is still my favorite Jane-while dressed more plainly than Emma, she had an elegance the latter did not and their “rivalry” made more sense. Here, she and Emma show signs that they are starting to get along well, until Box Hill, that is.
Blake Ritson as Mr. Elton
Two Edmund Bertrams in the cast! He was pretty good in that part, but he was better here, like Jonny Lee Miller. He’s my favorite Elton. He had the looks, the vanity, and the pomposity. His hair grew with his ego! One of the weak points for me was actually the carriage proposal here. It just fell flat-but I don’t think that was the fault of his acting.
Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton
Does this woman ever play any role besides “rich bitch?” She does it well and I do have to admit, I’ve only seen her in a handful of things. She was a great Mrs. Elton- the most annoying one yet, that’s for sure. I was surprised Emma didn’t slap Mr. Weston for inviting her to outings they clearly didn’t want her at! And she really went to Donwell on a donkey.
Valerie Lilley and Tamsin Greig as Mrs. and Miss Bates
This series really stressed the tragedy of the Bates’ situation. The above picture is from the introduction when they’re saying goodbye to Jane. In the series they’re both much more worn out. Miss Bates usually wears the same dress which has gotten very faded over the years. Mrs. Bates is in a wheel chair and refuses to talk. She’s not demented-she seems to be depressed about their situation and resentful of her daughter for giving up Jane. She speaks again at the end, after they learn Jane is engaged to Frank (and will be rich!) and she sees Mrs. Weston’s new baby. Miss Bates tries her best but her cheerful, overly chatty nature is a front for her own sadness.
Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse
He was pretty hilarious as he looked so physically fit yet acted the invalid so well. This version made him more sympathetic as well. He was always worrisome, but his hypochondria seems to be due in large part to his wife’s death. He clearly cares about his daughters but, like in the book, he doesn’t like change and doesn’t want to be left alone.
Jodhi May as Anne Weston
She was younger than in the other versions, in her mid-thirties, but it’s highly likely the book character was close to this age as well. Her close relationship to Emma was clear. The two were very much like sisters. (Miss Taylor in the book never could really control Emma either!)
Robert Bathurst as Mr. Weston
He did well as the friendly and kind Mr. Weston who also had a slightly darker side- he loved company so much he would invite everybody to everything, even if his friends were not fond of these people.
Dan Fredenburgh as John Knightley
He and Isabella get a lot more screen-time in this. You get to see a bit of their courtship and their wedding, plus a bunch of scenes at their house in London in addition to their visits to Highbury. I liked his portrayal except for one scene- after the Christmas party he deliberately leaves Emma to go home alone in the carriage with Mr. Elton. While in the book, John told Emma that Mr. Elton liked her, he went into the other carriage just out of habit in all the “chaos” caused by the snow. Here he thought it would be amusing, I guess. John Knightley could get grumpy, but I don’t think he would ever do that!
Poppy Miller as Isabella Knightley
I found this bit of casting pretty confusing. For one thing, she looked older than Miss Taylor! I haven’t been able to find her age online, so perhaps they just did that to show how the stress of five (and quite rowdy in this version) children ages you? She was also not the cheery woman she was in the book. She was much more sensible.
Have I mentioned how gorgeous this production was? The locations were beautiful, especially Hartfield. And of course, I must talk about the costumes! I liked how everyone’s wardrobe was indicative of their status and personality. Emma had some gowns that were to die for! But my favorites were actually her outerwear:
I wouldn’t mind owning any of these for myself!
This was a very well-done series, but not without its flaws. One part I still am not fond of is the end. I thought the editing of the scenes after Emma and Knightley confess their love was a bit choppy. That scene itself was great, but then all of a sudden we jump to Emma going to Donwell and crying that she couldn’t marry him because she couldn’t leave her father. Then we find out Harriet is marrying Robert Martin after all, and see the wedding, even though there was no build up to it like there was in the book. Then the characters gather and talk at the wedding and Emma jokes to Jane that she will still be engaged at 70 because her father does not want her to get married. Then all of a sudden, the wedding has taken place offscreen and Emma says good-bye to her father and they go off on their honeymoon. I thought these individual scenes were well-done, but there were really no transitions between them and I had no sense of how much time had passed or anything. Like I said, just too choppy.
Still, all the negatives are pretty minor. I feel that this a must-see for any Jane Austen or period drama fans.
My Rating: 9/10