Of all Jane Austen’s heroines, Emma is possibly the hardest to cast. She’s privileged, meddling, overconfident, and thoughtless, yet somehow we end up loving her. The new BBC adaptation must have had someone brilliant doing the casting, because Romola Garai (Atonement) is absolutely perfect as Emma.
Although she is horribly nosy and thinks herself quite the matchmaker at the start of this mini-series, Garai manages to balance Emma’s obnoxious behavior with the inner goodness of a young woman who ultimately wants those around her to be happy. Over the course of this four-part series, Emma grows up a lot. After a few errors in judgment she finally realizes that what she thinks will be best for others is not usually the case, she doesn’t even know what is best for herself. Writer Sandy Welch has done an excellent job with this adaptation.
Michael Gambon puts in a fine performance as Emma’s frail father, constantly nervous about the mere mention of travel, adverse weather, or a draft when young ladies are not wearing adequate shawls. Jonny Lee Miller plays Mr. Knightly, Emma’s surrogate older brother and the voice of reason in her life. His patience with her theatrics speaks volumes, and his serious manner provides a counterweight to some of her sillier schemes.
After one or two local matches in the town of Highbury become successful following what Emma fancies are her expert ministrations, Emma takes Harriet Smith under her wing. Naive, simple, and a bit starstruck, Harriet trusts Emma implicitly. Even when Emma advises her to reject the young farmer she has hoped to marry for some time, Harriet bows to her socially upstanding friend. Wanting to raise Harriet in society so she’ll be a worthy friend, Emma sets her sights on the greasy local preacher, played admirably by Blake Ritson (Mansfield Park).
Ritson’s fawning manners don’t become unbearable until Emma realizes he has no intentions of pursuing her friend Harriet. Perhaps Emma has been too distracted by her new friend, the unpredictable but attractive Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans). Emma becomes fast friends with Frank, overlooking some of his juvenile meanness until his betrayal of her trust causes her to doubt her own ability to judge human nature whatsoever. When his influence causes her to forget herself and to say something cruel to one of the well-meaning older ladies of the village, Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig, The Diary of Anne Frank, Black Books), Mr. Knightly forces Emma to face the carelessness of her actions.
This series adaptation of Emma is very humanistic, mostly light-hearted, and full of open, airy spaces and landscapes. The bright colors of Emma’s dresses emphasize her role as the center of her small community of family and friends. With her bright eyes and hair, and fair complexion, everyone’s attention naturally gravitates toward her. Her open laughter and manner of taking friends into her confidence perpetuate her existence as the center of attention. Emma’s lack of critical thought about the face value of the people and relationships around her makes for some embarrassing moments. Still, she is always forgiven as the golden child of one of the town’s leading families.
Emma’s ways are in stark contrast to the mousy yet musically-gifted Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper), who appears on the scene after we’ve had a chance to get to know Emma. Quiet, reserved, and sickly, Jane is frequently trampled by the stronger personalities around her in the town. Emma, Frank, and even Jane’s well-meaning aunt Miss Bates, no one seems able to allow Jane to have her privacy and space in this small community. Yet Jane and Emma are similar in that by the end of the series, they’ve each given serious thought to how they relate to other people, and each grows up in terms of finding a way to co-exist more peacefully within the community.
This adaptation is very well done, and the special features of the two-disc DVD set are a nice bonus. A short piece about the music accompanying Emma is a good addition for anyone interested in how the compositions reflect the period drama while remaining light and contemporary. The theme music that often accompanies Emma herself was developed so that it could be tweaked for various emotions. And recording shots of the orchestra adds an appreciation of the effort that goes into properly executing an original score for a period drama.
A separate special feature is included, “Emma’s Mr Woodhouse”. Michael Gambon is interviewed about his acting career and reminisces at length about how he got his start on the stage and in almost countless BBC drama pieces. Though there is little here in connection to Emma, Gambon provides some amusing anecdotes, like an early audition for a play where he ignored his bleeding hand to impress the director with his King Richard impression. He also mentions that it’s a delight and yet sometimes extremely challenging to work opposite Judi Dench, for example, in Cranford (2007), because the two are such old friends that they make each other laugh constantly.
This latest adaptation of Emma is the freshest in a line of recent Austen adaptations, and it’s delightful to see the BBC taking period drama so seriously, yet ultimately with a light heart.