Monday, February 8, 2010

Musings on 2009's "Emma"

I've just finished watching part 3 of Emma on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.

At first, I found this adaption much less accessible than the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. I'm used to seeing the Hollywood-ized adaptations of Austen novels, and fitting the whole of an Austen masterpiece into a mere 90 minutes has its disadvantages.

Actress Romola Garai -- one of those rare screen stars who miraculously looks far better without heavy makeup -- is a spirited Emma, quite sure of herself and full of verve. Her expressively mobile mouth anchors a wide-eye, imperfectly pretty face. As the heroine, she plays not so much on her looks as her ability to play a character whose face cannot help but give away her underlying emotions.

The nuances of Austen's writing and the exchanges between the characters -- many of which are not necessarily verbal -- are given a deeper, wider treatment in this four-hour version. The characters are less obviously drawn, and the actors have the opportunity to flesh out their performances -- with gratifying results.

I was particularly touched by Tamsin Greig's sympathetic portrayal of the unfortunate Miss Bates. Her goodheartedness, matched only by her social awkwardness, cannot conceal her dignity as a soul fully equal to any other, regardless of her poverty.

It's a small but crucial role, and Greig inhabits it impressively.

Johnny Lee Miller makes for a different sort of Knightley than Jeremy Northam's. Less imperious and more reserved, he's not the dashing wit, but a steadier flame to Emma's tempests. He sees more than he says, but when he speaks, more and more of his character is revealed. His is a Knightley with more dimensions, reflecting a maturity which eventually tempers and attracts an older, wiser Emma. An Emma who comes to know her own heart when faced by her follies and their consequences for those around her.

His sense and her altered sensibilities meet, in the final and very fulfilling climax of the story, in a most perfect meeting of the minds and hearts. In the end, "Emma" concludes with happy outcomes and charmed futures for most, but I always come away feeling bad for Miss Bates ...

... was that Jane Austen's intent? There are no miscalculations in her novels.

She noticed the smallest things ... and never missed their meaning.

Is this why we continue to love Austen, even to this day?

1 comment:

  1. A very well-written review, Laurie.

    I love Jane Austen's work, and have enjoyed pretty much every film and tv version I have seen (almost) of her stories.

    I wish I had known this program was on. It sounds like something I would enjoy very much. Maybe they will play it again.