Masterpiece Classic

by Laurie Viera Rigler

As someone who has read each of Austen's novels at least 20 times, the thought of seeing my beloved characters come to life on the screen is thrilling. And anxiety-producing. Notice I referred to them as "my" characters. I know them so well, they've lived inside my head so long, they've become part of me. Which is where the anxiety part comes in. Will they get "my" characters right? Stay true to "my" story? Or at least its spirit? What will they change? And most important: Will the hero be "my" Mr. Knightley?


It's no wonder I have to watch each new production at least twice to clear my brain enough to appreciate it, not just as an adaptation, but as a work of art in its own right. After all, there can never be a truly faithful adaptation of any literary work, even with source material as eminently adaptable as Austen's.


Let's face it: The medium of film is so inherently different from that of a book that it must--and, it could be argued, should--digress from the original, just as any new film remake must digress from its predecessors in order to justify its very existence. The degree of that digression is what sparks the most lively debates among Austen devotees like myself, and what constitutes at least half the fun in watching each new Austen-inspired movie or miniseries.


This latest EMMA miniseries is no exception, and I am delighted to proclaim it a success, faithful in both spirit and substance to the novel while digressing in ways that are both thoughtful and engaging.


My favorite digression in this EMMA was the fairytale-like opening, in which we see scenes from the past that are only remotely alluded to in the book. And thus we get a psychological glimpse into what made several characters who they are in the present-time of the story.


We see baby Emma with her mother and father, a man who worries that the worst will happen, and it does. When the next shot shows that pretty young mother lying in her coffin, and we see the father comforting and determining to protect his two sad little girls, we get a unique insight into the origins of Mr. Woodhouse's hypochondriacal, overly protective personality. And thus we can feel some compassion for his fears rather than simply laugh at them. We can understand, a little better, Emma's steadfast devotion to and infinite patience for her father, despite the limitations his eccentricities place on her life.


Seeing Emma lose her mother could also provide one more possible explanation for her declaring, "I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall."


We also have an opportunity to see Frank Churchill as little Frank Weston, a small boy who has just lost his mother. We see Frank taken away from his grieving father by his aunt, and we see how the weeping father must have convinced himself that what he did would be best for the boy. And thus not only do we get to see Frank as more than just the grown-up bad boy of the novel, we get quite a different glimpse of the novel's jovial, ever optimistic Mr. Weston.


And finally, we see Jane Fairfax as a little girl being sent away to live with the Campbells when her grandmother and aunt find themselves in reduced circumstances, and how grieved those two ladies are to part with Jane. Thus we have the set-up for a more layered portrayal of Miss Bates (Tamsin Grieg is splendid); we see her sadness as well as her silliness. My only problem with Miss Bates was that much of her disjointed ramblings, as written by Austen, and which constitute some of the funniest material in the book, did not make it into the movie.


Another noteworthy digression in this film is the very physicality of Emma--Romola Garai's expressive face, unladylike, almost masculine walk, and giggling, waving, all-around girlishness. Although Austen purists and others familiar with the period might object to this portrayal of Emma, ultimately I found it to be an interesting and clearly deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers and the actress. And perhaps, on closer analysis, it may not be a digression from the spirit of the novel at all.


Says Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston of Emma in the book: "Such an eye!--the true hazle eye--and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health...There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance." The Emma of this film is certainly bursting with health and vigor, and while not always the picture of a lady in her mannerisms, she is, after all, as my Austen scholar friend Dr. Alice Villaseñor pointed out, someone who never listened to her governess.


And, I will add, Emma is someone who is completely clueless about her heart (and the rest of her body) while fancying herself an expert on reading everyone else's signs. The Emma of this film is as incapable of creating mystery with her facial expressions as she is in solving the mysteries of other people's hearts. This Emma moves around like the overgrown child she is, one who will always be her father's child, a woman-child who treats people as her "playthings," as Knightley declares. And doesn't Emma's own physical awkwardness make her snobbishness all the more comic? Her characterization of Mr. Martin as "clownish" all the more ridiculous?


If there remains any doubt of Emma's physicality being a deliberate choice, consider the contrast between Emma's quick little bob of a curtsey and Mr. Elton's foppish, flourished bow. Therein we have a clever contrast between the artlessness of an open manner and the artfulness of vanity. Yes, Emma is vain as well, but as Mr. Knightley points out, never about her person.


All this discussion about Emma's physicality brings to mind what Austen devotees and those who are familiar with her time often object to in Austen-inspired films: manners, dress, and language that are inaccurate to the period. Although this EMMA definitely takes liberties in these areas, I find them forgivable because they give the production a fresh, contemporary feel that could inspire many more younger viewers to read Jane Austen. And if a movie gets its audience to read Austen, is it really worth getting our knickers in a twist over PDA's and the OED?


dance.jpgWhat is most important is that the filmmakers did a splendid job of making a heroine, as Jane Austen put it, "whom no-one but myself will much like," eminently likeable. In Romola Garai's portrayal, we see Emma's kind and compassionate heart, girlish naïveté, and absolute cluelessness about the potentially dire consequences of her romantic meddling (for this the bride and groom dolls she played with are a lovely touch). All that, aided by the foil of a most brilliant and appealing Jonny Lee Miller (who does an excellent job of being "my" Mr. Knightley, by the way), makes Emma's snobbishness and vanity more ridiculous than contemptible. And the banter between the two of them certainly makes the romantic sparks fly.


One more thing that must be said in this EMMA's favor: production values. What a pleasure to see a TV version that is shot, lit, and dressed with as much care as a lavish Hollywood production. And oh, those costumes--I'm still lusting after Emma's blue-green sash and tasseled beret. And wondering if Mr. Woodhouse will notice if I borrow one of his pashminas. After all, he's got about seven of them around his neck.


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I couldn't agree with you more.

I found the first installment in Masterpiece charming and addictive and can't wait until this coming Sunday for a touch more!

it was wonderful and I am glad that with each new series of remade Jane Austen's the stories speak for that generation.

I agree. I can't wait till next Sunday. I agree about the costumes- loved the beret as well!

What an insightful review! I found Emma's over-the-top mannerisms very refreshing and appropriate as well. Loved your comparison of Emma's curtsey and Elton's bow! And couldn't agree with you more about the costumes... maybe pocket watches will be in vogue again. =)

Your reflection on the opening of part one made me rethink the entire episode in a different light. Where at first I was overly critical of how the book was portrayed, now I understand a bit better the direction the filmmakers are taking. Can't wait for the next part!!!

Like all other Masterpiece remakes, I loved Emma and can´t wait for the second part.

For a girl that grew up with clueless on her video player I have found this version as lovely as I had imagined, as modern as clueless but with all the class that Jane Austen might have written on a screenplay.

I agree about the costumes specially the hats; I loved them, they seemed like I could actually wear them now.

Hmmm...perhaps the PBS store should start selling copies of EMMA costumes and accessories?

Thanks for all the comments!

I absolutely love this adaptation of EMMA and your analysis of it makes me even more excited for Sunday. Thanks for sharing!!

I absolutely detested this made-for-TV Emma in every possible way. It was cloying and wallowed in cutesy-ism, relying mostly on the main actress to flash her dimples to cue us in to laugh. Emma IS NOT A SITUATION COMEDY. Even the recent movie version, sullied by Hollywood, was infinitely better! AND, the empire dresses were ill-fitted tablecloths merely pinned around the waist. The standards of PBS are constantly devolving to match the times. Simply watch a masterpiece like "I, Claudius", or "Bleak House", from the 80's and compare these to this travesty!

Well said, well said!

I too adore this version of Emma. Romola's lively take on Emma makes it so fun to watch. In fact, it crossed my mind that she would be a rather fun Lizzy too.

As for Jonny Lee Miller, be still my heart! I loved him as Edmund Bertram and Eli Stone and I was so excited to see him on screen again as Mr. Knightley. His voice and they way he delivers his line is most charming. :-)

The script was very witty and I had a lot of laugh out loud moments, which is more than I can say for the other adaptations of Emma. Thoroughly enjoyable and made me fall in love with everything Austen all over again.

My only disappointment was with the musical score, especially at the most critical scene in the end. I did not feel it did justice to the importance of the moment. Otherwise, the costumes and settings were beautiful and a visual treat.


I absolutely enjoyed reading your review of this particular version of Emma. Besides all of the wonderful things you pointed out about the digressions in the film, I really was inspired by this statement: "Let's face it: The medium of film is so inherently different from that of a book that it must--and, it could be argued, should--digress from the original, just as any new film remake must digress from its predecessors in order to justify its very existence."

I whole-heartedly agree with this point and believe that it is crucial when viewing film adaptations of books. It is virtually impossible to capture the complete and true essence of a book on film and it is wonderful to view the different adaptations of a work and see the small bits and pieces of the books they are adapted from while viewing. It is fantastic to be able to have both mediums, particularly having those stories played out for us and wondering if they will be just as we had always imagined or not!

Excellent post!

Really appreciate your thoughts on this point, Nadia. It's something I always must remind myself of whenever I watch a film of a book I really love!

Such truth behind your words. Each and every person that has a passion for Jane Austen's fabulous novels feels the say way when we watch a new film made, read another book written or just talk with a friend about our characters that we love so much.

I am watching Emma for the 2nd time through and eagerly await next Sunday's installment.

This EMMA version is stunning and absolutely wonderful. They picked the perfect casts. Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller -- well -- they bring out the characters splendidly. Excellent! I already bought the DVD to add to my Jane Austen collection. They should bring this (and other Jane Austen adaptations) to the big screen. I must have seen Pride & Prejudice (Kheira Knightley) 20 times. It's just a different experience watching it in the big screen.

I agree--there can never be too many Austen adaptations on the big screen. Hmmm...will we one day be seeing a 3-D P&P at our local multiplex? Or even on our home theater system? What a thought!

I caught a glimpse on TV last Sunday that GPTV would be airing a series of 4 Jane Austen productions beginning (I thoutht)Sunday, November 7, 2010. Was I mistaken on the dates? I can't find any information about any such airing dates at GPTV or PBS sites. Can someone please provide me with any information. I really don't to miss this series.

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