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.
I’m nodding my head in agreement with your review! As much as I wanted to love it, I found that it didn’t sweep me away as I’d hoped. I did think it was a first-rate production and is well worth watching as I plan to re-watch it myself! I did find it odd that I felt less of a connection between Emma and Mr. Knightley in this 4 hour version than in the previous two films which had half the time to develop the plot and characters. I thought Romola and Jonny gave fine performances (as did the whole cast) but somehow this ‘recipe’ didn’t turn out perfectly despite using the finest ingredients!
Thanks for your review!
Emma Hox says
I am not sure exactly what I think of the new Emma. I definitely like the acidness of Kate Beckinsale and the genuine sweetness of Gwynoth Paltrow, but I have yet to determine what I prefer about Ramola Garai. I will have to just continue watching to make my determination.
Emma Margaret says
I couldn’t disagree more. I have watched and rewatched this Emma many times and continue to find new things to love. From the very beginning we see how much Mr. Knightley cares about Emma as he returns from London and tries to cheer her up on the evening of Miss Taylor’s wedding. Did you notice how when he appears in the doorway of the younger Emma, she knows he’s there without turning around, and again when she later says “Isabella has had five children,” knowing again that he is there without having to look at him. The ballroom scene is a masterpiece of acting by Jonny Lee Miller–he can convey so much feeling with only a brief downcast of his eye. While I liked Gwynth Paltrow’s Emma very much, it seems contrived compared to this version. These are real people, and I care very much about them.