I felt as if I were watching “Emma” 2009 through smudged glass. I found it entertaining for the most part, but it never deeply engaged my emotions and it didn’t make me laugh enough.
PBS’ “Masterpiece” will air the BBC’s latest version of “Emma” (which debuted in the UK in fall 2009) in three weekly episodes (a 2-hour episode and two 1-hour episodes), starting this Sunday, Jan. 24.
I’ll start by admitting that I wasn’t sure why we needed a remake of “Emma” anyway. We already have three filmed takes on Jane Austen’s comic novel: the very good 1972 BBC “Emma” with Doran Godwin, the excellent 1996 BBC version with Kate Beckinsale , and the wonderful 1996 Miramax feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Then there’s “Clueless,” the cute 1995 movie starring Alicia Silverstone that transports Austen’s meddling heroine to modern times. Then again, it’s been 13 years since the last Emmas aired, enough time for a new generation to need introduction to Austen’s clueless anti-heroine.
In the new “Emma,” Romola Garai mugs her way through the title role; at any moment I expected her to say, “Omigod!” This version of “Emma” was no doubt designed to appeal to viewers younger than I. After the first half hour or so, I got used to Garai’s interpretation of Austen’s comic heroine, though I can’t say I ever fell in love with it.
While my heart will forever belong to Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley, Jonny Lee Miller’s performance in the new version probably comes closest to the Mr. Knightley of Austen’s novel. Northam (Miramax 1996 film) played up Knightley’s sense of humor. Mark Strong (BBC 1996) emphasized his more serious side. Miller skillfully blends the two.
The 1996 BBC “Emma” hewed closely to Austen’s story and prose. The 1996 feature film went the other way, following Austen’s story and dialogue for the most part, but adding decidedly modern costumes, situations and comic touches. The new “Emma” straddles the fence between traditional Austen and modern RomCom, never quite daring to jump either way. The characters explain their feelings too much, they use idioms that didn’t exist in the early 19th century (Emma wants to “set the record straight”), and the teleplay begins with the childhood backgrounds of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. These extra bits don’t particularly enlighten or entertain us—they’re just there.
In both the 1996 film and the 1996 BBC series, you get a real sense of the chemistry between Emma and Mr. Knightley. These two have known each other since she was a baby. He’s a mentor, a confidant, her best friend—and her conscience. She’s like an exasperating little sister. She drives him crazy at times but he can never stay angry at her because he loves her.
Garai and Miller, both first-rate actors, play their scenes together well enough, but somehow the chemistry seems a little muted. This puzzled me at first. Then about halfway through the series it suddenly hit me: Emma rarely, if ever, addresses Mr. Knightley by name. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that having her call him “Mr. Knightley” would add too much formality or emphasize their unequal status, but like Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley is a classic character. He is not a George, he is not a generic “you,” he is Mr. Knightley. In the book, Emma even jokes about how she can’t bring herself to call him by his given name—he will forever be her “Mr. Knightley.”
While I don’t think this version quite lives up to its predecessors, it’s well acted and worth watching. After all, can one ever have too much Austen? I think not.