by Cathleen Myers
We had great hopes for this BBC film version of Jane Austen’s Emma (which premiered this season on A&E and is now available on video) since it featured the same team (Screenwriter Andrew Davis and Producer Sue Birtwhistle) who brought us last year’s divine Pride and Prejudice, which succeeded in being both faithful to Austen and remarkably vivid cinematic drama, too, even managing to translate some of Austen’s devastatingly ironic wit to the screen.
So, what went wrong?
"There is a certain amount of liberty that you can take," screenwriter Andrew Davis remarks, in defense of his new screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. You can’t change the actual story, but there’s always some hidden scenes in the book that Austen didn’t get around to writing herself and it’s nice to fill in some of the little gaps."
Unfortunately, there is too much of Davis’ imagination and too little Jane Austen in this disappointing adaptation of the novel that many Janeites consider the most perfectly constructed in the English language. In a misguided effort to make the domineering, self-centered heroine more likable, Davis creates a series of daydream/fantasy sequences for her. Since the screenplay has, of necessity, left out so much of Austen’s original, it seems a pity to be making up stuff, doesn’t it?
The main problem with this adaptation is that it is so very rushed (It’s even shorter than the equally unsatisfactory Gwyneth Paltrow version released last summer) that we don’t really get a chance to know Emma (Kate Beckinsale) and Mr. Knightly (Mark Strong) very well: She comes off as an interfering bitch; he comes off as short-tempered and domineering. While Ms. Beckinsale at least shows more character than Gwyneth Paltrow’s porcelain doll, she does emphasize Emma’s unattractive qualities and snobbishness. She’s not even condescending; she’s simply rude (not returning curtsies and bows from social inferiors like Mrs. Goddard the kindly school mistress and flouncing haughtily past the courteous yeoman farmer Robert Martin). Unfortunately, director Diarmuid Lawrence doesn’t seem to know much about period manners.
He and Davis do attempt one thing that the Merchant-Ivory/Gwyneth Paltrow version didn’t: They do their best to preserve the original mystery plot and at least one viewer told us that she was unable to guess the mystery until it was actually revealed (We will not be so caddish as to reveal the novel’s central surprise to those few readers who have not read the book or seen the films).
There is some effective casting in supporting roles: Frank Churchill (Raymond Coulthard) is suitably attractive and his fashionable elegance contrasts nicely with Knightly’s more natural manners and dress. Mrs. Weston (Samantha Bond - Miss Moneypenny from the last Bond film!) is as elegant and attractive as she should be. On the other hand, Jane Fairfax seems unnecessarily colorless, though at least we realize exactly why Emma dislikes her: Jane’s singing and playing are professional enough to make even the most unmusical viewers realize the contrast between her talent and Emma’s pleasant amateurism. There’s a really superb moment in which Jane and Frank sing, "Were I Laid on Greenland’s Coast" when we realize just how lovely and animated the supposed ice princess can be! If Mrs. Elton, on the other hand, seems too blatantly "common" to be believable, Elton, on the other hand, is smoothly played by Dominic Rowan - for once attractive enough to be believable as the village heartthrob. And Emma’s protégé Harriet Smith (Sarah Morton) actually does change from awkward school girl to chic young woman of fashion, making Emma’s fears that she has created a potential rival all the more believable.
As in last year’s Pride and Prejudice, the costumes are accurate and unobtrusive. The men’s country clothes are superb. The women’s are suitably subdued and simple. Emma generally wears a rather mannish looking hat in contrast to the demure bonnets worn by the other women in her set - a neat character touch - but generally gives the impression of not caring a hang what she wears (as the richest young lady in town, she can afford to dress down). But Mrs. Elton’s gowns should have shown more "studied elegance" and glitz.
Historical music and dance enthusiasts will appreciate the use of genuine period country dance tunes, though the choreographer obviously hasn’t read the novel. The dance that Mrs. Weston plays for Emma and Frank Churchill is supposed to be a country dance waltz, not an ordinary country dance; and the dance in which Mr. Knightly gallantly comes to Harriet’s rescue is "Juice of Barley" in this film - a dance which gives her no opportunity to fly down the middle and bound "higher than ever." (There are no setting steps in the dance at all!). And, as usual, the choreographer meddles with the original choreography, adding a hey for four to "Hole in the Wall" and changing the opening sequence of "Mr. Isaac’s Maggott" for no apparent reason. "Jack’s Maggott" looks very effective indeed on film, with its multiple heys. One wonders, however, whether even so old-fashioned a community as Highbury would dance so many old-fashioned (early 18th century) dances at their assemblies and private balls. Surely, the young people would demand at least a couple of up to date tunes and dances.
What Emma needs is the leisure time of a mini-series to develop its complex hero and heroine’s character and relationship and to give us an opportunity to linger over scenes like the Assembly, Strawberry Hunt and Box Hill scenes instead of rushing through them. Perhaps if this Emma had been given the same treatment as last year’s Pride and Prejudice, we would have had another video masterpiece instead of this flawed and unsatisfactory film.
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