Saturday, January 28, 2012

Emma (Miniseries)

Jim O’Hanlon, 2009 (9.5*)
Masterpiece Theater version for BBC

There have been a veritable plethora of Jane Austen’s novels put to film, usually 3 to 5 per novel. In fact, this is the fourth version of Emma since 1972, beginning with another BBC miniseries, then a tv film with Kate Beckinsale, then the more famous film in 1996 with Gwyneth Paltrow (trying her best to affect a British accent, see our review here), then finally what I would call the definitive version – this one with the engaging Romola Garai. There was also the updated American adaptation, Clueless (1995), from Amy Heckerling, which retold the story with a spoiled Beverly Hills princess and a hilarious spoof of modern teens, starring a spunky 16-yr old newcomer Alicia Silverstone. (Ok, I confess, this over-the-top version is my favorite one to rewatch, but it bears few traces of Miss Austen.)

Romola Garai, whose name is the feminine version of Romulus, founder of Rome, comes from a Hungarian background, born in Hong Kong, and later relocated to England. Perhaps this outsider’s take on Austen gave her the necessary freshness and naivity that the role ultimately requires.

For the incogniscenti, Emma is born into aristocracy, and in this film Michael Gambon plays her doting and ultra-mindful father with loving humor – he frets about anyone even walking outside catching their death of something - in his mind it's best not to leave home at all. Emma’s mother died when she was “too young to remember her laugh”, and she’s remained by her father’s side ever since.

She’s grown up with a neighbor, a Mr. Knightly, who has been not only her brother-in-law, but like a brother, often scolding her like a parent for her insensitive improprieties. Jonny Lee Miller (yes, the one from the aborted Eli Stone tv show) turns in a remarkably effective and in tune performance as Emma’s longtime friend and confidante; one could argue that he’s the best cast male of any of Austen’s novels put to film.

Michael Gambon, Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller

Not being interested in romance, Emma fancies herself a matchmaking cupid after taking responsibility for getting her governess hitched to a wealthy widower nearby. Spurred on by this achievement, she spends the story trying to advise everyone in her sphere regarding romance, without any firsthand experience herself.

Most people either love Jane Austen or think she’s overblown and trivial; after all, most of her novels are about little more than whether a single woman will ever get married or not. However, primary plots aside, Austen’s forte was in painting a picture of both aristocracy and the common people within their spheres, society’s affect on individual happiness, usually influenced by idle gossip and speculation of outsiders.

This version of Emma was so wonderfully cast that it’s now easily my favorite Austen work put to film. A rather long work at around 270 minutes, it does give the novel ample coverage; it’s been described as Austen’s most complex plot with the most relationships. Emma grows from child to woman before our eyes, yet it’s her childish innocence that makes her so likable, even though Austen herself said of all her heroines, Emma is a person she wouldn’t like herself.

The outing to Box Hill

In this production, she is surrounded by a well-cast supporting group of characters. Blake Ritson was funny and dead on as the local preacher Mr. Elton. The chatty but well meaning Miss Bates was perfectly played by Tamsin Greig. Perhaps only Laura Pyper as Jane Fairfax was too tepid to exhibit even a brief glimpse of personality, dominated by her aunt, Miss Bates.

If you like Austen, you should love this; if you like the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater, this is another stalwart entry in that long-enduring and endearing series. It may not have the wonderful subtlety or complexity of Downton Abbey, but then it’s a novel from a century and a half ago, so in that regard it’s amazing, and a tribute to Austen, that it’s still able to enthrall audiences this far removed from her period in history. No film can capture the beauty and artistry of eloquent prose, but this mini-series in four parts comes as close to Austen as any other to date.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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