BBC Video // 2009 // 229 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // February 9th, 2010
Love knows no boundaries. And neither does she.
Given the recent production of new television films/miniseries of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park, I suppose this telling of Emma was inevitable. Representing the fifth (sixth if you count Clueless) adaptation of Austen's novel, how does this latest version separate itself from the pack?
The attractive, intelligent and spoiled Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai, Atonement) lives with her hypochondriac father (Michael Gambon, Layer Cake) on an English country estate. Content with running the house, Emma has no interest in a marriage of her own; however, she fancies herself a skilled matchmaker following the marriage of her former governess, Ann Taylor (Jodhi May), to widower Mr. Weston (Robert Bathurst), a union for which Emma claims credit. Encouraged, Emma embarks on a career as Cupid, much to the dismay of Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller, Eli Stone), Emma's brother-in-law and neighbor. Failing to heed Mr. Knightley's warnings, Emma soon finds she knows much less about the workings of the human heart (including her own) than she thought.
I can't claim to be a Jane Austen expert, having only read a few of her novels, but I know enough to recognize that the BBC's latest adaptation of Emma is at best a mixed bag.
Things don't begin well with the opening sequence, which is botched by the unfortunate decision to incorporate Frank and Jane's origins into the first scenes, which comes off as clumsy and confusing.
Pacing is a huge problem for this Emma. The miniseries is broken up into four episodes that run about 55 minutes each, which is far too long a stay in Highbury. Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed the novel, but I don't know that it merits a four-hour miniseries treatment. There are simply too many stretches where the story slows to a crawl, and subplots like the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax secret engagement seem to take an eternity to be resolved. (It doesn't help that in the case of this particular subplot, the viewer is assaulted with flashback sequences of all the clues to their relationship.) The 1996 film Emma (the Gwyneth Paltrow film) is not perfect, but it does a pretty good job of condensing the novel into a 2-hour runtime.
The direction of the miniseries (by Jim O'Hanlon) is generally solid, with some strong camerawork and editing on display here and there (a tracking shot at the beginning of part 2 comes to mind), but there are also some strange decisions, like having a POV shot from the top of Mrs. Woodhouse's coffin as it's pulled away.
By her creator's own admission, Emma Woodhouse is not an easy character to love, and as an Austen heroine she invokes far less sympathy than, say Elizabeth Bennett or Elinor Dashwood. Unfortunately, Sandy Welch's script and Romola Garai's performance do little to help the cause. Too often, Emma doesn't tend to come off as clever (as Austen describes her in the novel); she just seems to be a silly young woman. In parts one and two, if Garai's eyes could go any wider, they'd need their own aspect ratio, and her smile is nearly as big. Yes, Emma is supposed to be spoiled, and she is supposed to take delight in matchmaking and so on, but that's just the surface of the character, a level beneath which the filmmakers and Garai do not often venture. As the miniseries progresses and Emma makes one blunder after another, the character and performance mature considerably. Although depicting such a stark change in character may have been the filmmakers and Garai's intention all along, I would have preferred a more nuanced approach.
Garai's bubbliness must have been contagious, because Jonny Lee Miller's Mr. Knightley sometimes comes off as cheerier than would seem to befit the stern father figure who is constantly scolding and lecturing Emma in the novel. Because there's little sense of Emma's smarts in parts one and two, there's not enough friction between the two, although a pair of extended arguments (one at the end of part one and another at the end of part three) almost make up for this on their own. Miller is excellent when he's admonishing Emma (especially during the aftermath of the Box Hill incident), but the portrayal still feels a little soft at times.
Emma is spread out across two discs, with parts one and two on the first disc and three and four on the second, with bonus features divided between the two. Image and sound quality are both fine; the picture is very colorful and nicely shows off the costumes and locations, and the sound balances Samuel Sim's excellent score with the dialogue nicely. For extras, there are three featurettes focusing on locations, costumes and music, along with an interview with Michael Gambon. Although brief (the longest bonus is about 13 minutes), these featurettes are admittedly informative.
One area in which this Emma almost universally succeeds is the realm of supporting players. Michael Gambon is delightful as Mr. Woodhouse. Although this illness-fearing fuddy duddy could have become tiresome very quickly, Gambon makes the character endearing and amusing. Tamsin Greig also has a tricky role as chatterbox Miss Bates and is simply outstanding, to the point that when Emma insults her during the Box Hill outing, it's a very sad moment for both the character and the viewer. Blake Ritson employs overly dramatic whispers to great comic effect (whether this was intentional, I'm not sure) as Mr. Elton, a clergyman who is spurned by Emma, and Christina Cole exudes gobs of snobbishness as the woman Mr. Elton marries following his rejection by Emma. Rupert Evans is alternately brooding and charming as Frank Churchill, which suits the character, but Laura Pyper's Jane is so mousy and reserved that in her every scene she threatens to vanish into the upholstery. Louise Dylan's Harriet Smith is appropriately sweet and naïve, but she gets a bit too hysterical at times.
The production values of this miniseries also deserve a mention here. The locations used for filming are really put to good use and go a long way toward setting the atmosphere (particularly the house that plays Hartfield, the Woodhouses' home), and Rosalind Ebbutt's costumes indicate a keen attention to detail, color and character.
If the filmmakers had focused more on character and less on including every last detail of the novel, this Emma may have stood tall among Austen adaptations. Unfortunately, its flaws consign it to a rental-only-for-Austen-diehards recommendation.
Guilty of being a pretty but ponderous adaptation.
Review content copyright © 2010 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 229 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Emma