Adieu Miss Woodhouse – Emma (2009) concludes on Masterpiece Classic

Image from Emma Episode 3: Box Hill picnic x 450 © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Episode three of Emma (2009) aired tonight on Masterpiece Classic PBS. I am feeling more than a bit of melancholia setting in!

Spoilers ahead! 

Despite being a “troublesome creature” throughout most of the story, Emma does redeem herself by admitting her misconceptions and blunders. How could we not forgive, admire and love her? After all, Mr. Knightley does and everyone knows he is the voice of reason throughout the story! You can read my original thoughts on this new adaption of Jane Austen’s classic novel at my review, Miss Woodhouse – a nonsensical girl.

Austen has taken us on a great ride from revulsion to delight with her exasperatingly heroine Emma Woodhouse. Screenwriter Sandy Welch may not have included much of Austen’s original language in this new adaptation, but the story and the Austen magic remained. By the third episode our Miss Woodhouse had matured from spoiled and willful to contrite and accepting. What a relief. Along the way, I came to respect Romola Garai’s interpretation of Emma, I suspect because her delivery improved and I just adore Austen’s story. Jonny Lee Miller was not my first choice as Mr. Knightley and I had my doubts, but he shined in the proposal scene and everyone knows that’s what really matters. *wink* I will conclude with one of the most joyful quotes from the novel that unfortunately was not included in this adaptation – but should have been.

“It is such a happiness when good people get together — and they always do.” Miss Bates Ch 21 

Adieu Miss Woodhouse, it was sorely lacking in Austen’s language, but I got over it.

Further Reading:

Images courtesy © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Emma (2009) concludes tomorrow night on Masterpiece Classic

Image from Emma 2009: Emma and Frank © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Don’t miss the last episode of Emma (2009) staring Romola Garai on Masterpiece Classic PBS Sunday, February 7th from 9-10 PM. (check your local listing).

In this final installment of the three part mini-series, we travel to Box Hill for the famous picnic and witness more than a bit of bad behavior by our heroine Miss Woodhouse. Later, shocking news angers the Highbury community and Emma has a revelation about her future – but it might all be too late!

Also, be sure to join the bi-coastal Twitter party, Sunday February 7th, 2010 9-10PM eastern and pacific coast times.

Image courtesy © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Deconstructing Miss Emma Woodhouse

Image from Emma (2009): Emma Woodhouse © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

The second episode of the new adaptation Emma (2009) aired last night on Masterpiece Classic. You can read my review of Emma and watch previous episodes until March 9th, 2010 at the Masterpiece website. As we move further into the story of Highbury’s misapplying match maker, I thought it would be interesting to delve into her character in the novel a bit deeper and explore the different Emma’s portrayed in the film and television adaptations.

Since it’s publication in 1815, Jane Austen’s Emma has had its share of advocates and adversaries. What impressed early readers was not that it lacked energy and style, but that its story was dull and uneventful. Even Austen’s famous publisher John Murray thought it lacked ‘incident and romance’ and Maria Edgeworth, a contemporary author so greatly admired by Austen that she sent her one of the twelve presentation copies allotted by her publisher, could not read past the first volume and thought “there was no story in it.” Ironically, what these two prominent and well read individuals attributed as a weakness, is actually Emma’s greatest strength.

If one looks beyond the surface, Emma is a intricate story focused on the astute characterization and social reproof which Austen is famous for. Its heroine, the  privileged, self-conceited and spoiled Emma Woodhouse may not be as appealing as Austen’s sparkling and clever heroine Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, but her character offers the reader a harder wrought and more rewarding dénouement. Like Miss Woodhouse who believes that she knows better than anyone else what is best for them, we must trust Jane Austen’s instincts for what she believes is the best subject and narrative style. Since many scholars, critics and readers attribute Emma as a masterpiece of world literature, I think Jane Austen has the final laugh on her early critics. Emma may be about nothing and lack romance, but what a pleasure it is to be so resplendently deficient.

Emma Woodhouse is a complex character that on first acquaintance is rather a pill. In the famous opening line she appears rather appealing, ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,’ but Austen quickly dispels the readers good opinion with an equally opposite retort, ‘The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.’ In those two sentences we learn so much: she has every advantage in life that a young lady could wish for but is untempered and totally clueless.

Austen gave herself a great challenge in creating “a heroine whom no one but myself will like.” In contrast with her other heroines, Miss Woodhouse does not have any social or financial concerns and thus no compelling need to marry. Therein lives the rub. We have no sympathy for her whatsoever. She’s rich, she’s spoiled and she’s stuck up. Who indeed could possibly like such a “troublesome creature”? During the course of the novel we witness her exerting her superior notions of who is suitable for whom as she match makes for her friends with disastrous results. It is no wonder that Maria Edgeworth gave up reading Emma after the first volume. At that point we have met most of the characters in Emma’s world and are coming to fully understand her ignorance and misguided perceptions in relation to them. She is truly exasperating. Austen tests our endurance fully as the novel progresses and her heroine continues to make mistakes. It is a testament to her skill as a writer and deft comedian that she holds our fascination with the “busy nothings” of every-day country life in Highbury, a small village filled with endearingly flawed characters. The transformation of the heroine from spoiled and insufferable into a contrite, mature and likeable young lady that you want to root for, is nothing less than remarkable. It is truly a shame that Edgeworth could not recognize the genius of Austen’s sly sashay of characterization into a world that could be your own neighborhood. We can only account that, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”

Miss Emma Woodhouse on screen

Image from Emma (1972): Doran Godwin as Emma Woodhouse © 1972 BBC

Doran Godwin (1972), with her regal repose and swan-like neck gave us an elegant Miss Woodhouse that was more a toffee-nosed London snob than the country girl from the first family of consequence in a small Surrey village. Though I enjoyed her performance, I could never warm to her Emma and rejoice in Mr. Knightley choosing her as his Mistress of Donwell Abbey. After Mr. Woodhouse’s demise, I envisioned them packing it up and moving to Town. This Emma was meant for superior refinement.

Alicia Silverstone (1995) as Cher Horowitz in Clueless, she gave us a contemporary version of Emma set in Beverly Hills infused with Valley-speak and designer fashion that was so totally fresh and outrageous hilarious that even after fifteen years it may be what she is best remembered for. Her Cher may have been a superficial cell phone wielding Emma who soul searches while shopping, but we were not only charmed by her innocence, but by her high-tech closet. Totally, fur sure!

Kate Beckinsale (1996) at 23 was the youngest actress to portray 21 year old Emma Woodhouse, bringing a youthful vitality and naughty school-girl persona to the part. Her immature busybody was at times both annoying and redeemable. I was highly suspect that she would mature enough to be a good match to Mark Strong’ assertive and angry Mr. Knightley. Their future life together was bound to be wrought with boisterous rows and passionate reconciliations.

Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) was another elegant and long-necked Emma Woodhouse but played the part more as a mischievous altruist, than the spoiled, conceited and misguided match maker that Austen intended. The fact that her comedic skills and suave polish suited the screenplay was a benefit too. Oh and she actually got to say some of Austen’s great lines. Screenwriter Douglas McGrath actually trusted Austen enough to leave more than a few of those in.

Image from Emma (2009): Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse © 2009 BBC for MASTERPIECE

Romola Garai (2009) is the newest and most energetic Miss Woodhouse to grace the screen yet. Physically she fits the part perfectly and has the experience and maturity to play a complicated heroine closest to Austen intentions. Early in the production she had an odd habit of exaggerated facial expression and popping eyes, but as Emma matures through the story we saw less of this and more refinement. Unfortunately, she did not get to say much of Emma Woodhouse’s great dialogue, but the spirit remained, and I grew to appreciate her performance. How she will be ranked among the Emma’s on the screen, we will have to wait a few years for a better perspective.

Who is your favorite Emma Woodhouse? Have your share of the conversation and vote today.

Images from Emma (2009) courtesy © 2009 BBC for MASTERPIECE

Emma (2009) on Masterpiece Classic – Miss Woodhouse, a Nonsensical Girl!

Image from Emma 2009: Emma and Frank at The Crown Inn dance © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sage advice from the philosophizing Forrest Gump. The same can be said of Jane Austen adaptations. Last nights US premiere of screenwriter Sandy Welch’s newly retooled Emma on Masterpiece Classic had its mix of nuts, chews and soft centers. Most viewers will be tempted to consume it quickly like the beautifully crafted confection that it is. I prefer to take a small bite first to see what I’m getting.

Emma may very well be the last Jane Austen adaptation (or any other bonnet drama) that we see on television for quite some time. The BBC is feigning Austen fatigue after years of milking the almighty cash cow. Since 2005 we have been treated to a new major movie or television production of each of Jane Austen’s six major novels. Emma (2009) completes the set. Time to bring on the reality television and grittier fare. So speaketh auntie Beeb. Because of their partnership with the BBC, Masterpiece PBS is hooked into their decisions too, though I suspect with more regret than they will admit since Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton remarked last week “We are not stupid: Jane Austen is catnip to our audience.”

This new Emma has almost everything that this bonnet drama geek could hope for in an Austen film adaptation: four hours to develop the story to its fullest, beautiful, beautiful production values, a seasoned and award winning screenwriter and a cast dappled with some of Britain’s finest veteran actors and up and coming stars. What’s not to like? How could it go wrong? Let me extol upon its many charms and a few foibles.

As host Laura Linney began her introduction, I was waiting for her to pop in Jane Austen’s famous ironic remark about Emma Woodhouse, “a heroine no one but myself will much like.” She did not disappoint. Over the centuries Emma has had her share of advocates and adversaries. She is actually a bit of a pill. Handsome, clever and rich with nothing to vex her, she is not one of Austen’s typical financially challenged heroines. There in lies the rub. We are not in the least sympathetic to her situation, and in fact, quite annoyed by her self-deluded notions of merrily matchmaking for her friends with disastrous results. In the three previous adaptations of Emma, we have seen her portrayed as an elegant toffee-nosed snob by Doran Godwin in 1972, an immature busybody by Kate Beckinsale and a mischievous altruist by Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996. Now Romola Garai has been passed the baton and plays it close to Austen’s intensions, but with thrice the emotion.

Emma (2009) might just surpass the venerable 1995 Pride and Prejudice in superior production values. It is a visual delight, skillfully crafted by a gifted production team of designer Stevie Herbert and art director Pilar Foy. Bravo. The stately Regency-era homes chosen to stand-in for the Woodhouse estate of Hartfield (Squerryes Court, Kent), Mr. Knightley’s residence at Donwell Abbey (Loseley Park, Guildford, Surrey) and the village of Highbury (Chilham, Kent) elegantly and historically set the stage for all of the other production elements.

The costumes designed by Rosalind Ebbutt may not have been completely period accurate as to color, but the coordination of color schemes to the set of actors in a scene and within the room it was filmed in was stunning. I particularly appreciated Emma Woodhouse’s lovely pale coral evening gown and Harriet Smith’s virginally white frock at the Crown Inn Ball. Ebbutt has a keen eye for accessories and her use of jewelry and shawls was striking, but sadly I was quite disappointed in the bonnets which tended to be too droopy and not quite as refined and highly fashioned as one would wish. Highbury is in the country, but the elegant Miss Woodhouse can still be allowed a bit of London millinery foppery. The gentleman’s attire was tolerable, though I admit to feeling more than a bit embarrassed by the cut of Mr. Knightley’s waistcoat in one scene that made him look rather like he was twelve and in need of ten years to grow into it. Many of the actors have director of photography Adam Suschitzky to thank for making them look glowingly elegant and refined. Ladies never look so fine as by candle light and the interior evening scenes of the Woodhouse dinner party, the Christmas eve dinner at Randalls and the Ball at the Crown Inn were particularly flattering.

When I read the original casting announcements I was a bit surprised by some of the choices. I had been rooting for Richard Armitage as Mr. Knightley and could envision no other in his stead. When the part was given to Jonny Lee Miller, I was crestfallen. On the other hand, I was pleased by the selection of Romola Garai as Miss Woodhouse. I had enjoyed her performances in I Capture the Castle and Atonement and thought her a talented young actress. Interestingly, I would change my position on each of the leads, resisting Miller at first, then growing to admire his comedic timing while accepting Garai immediately until her overplay of emotion with eye popping and exaggerated facial expressions was totally distracting. I will admit though, that she did improve upon acquaintance. As Miss Woodhouse matured through the course of the narrative, so did my respect for her.

Among the secondary characters that stood out most in this large ensemble cast was Louise Dylan as Emma’s dear friend and plaything Harriet Smith. Happily she did not play Harriet as a complete airhead as we have seen in the past by Toni Collette in the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow version. I am Miss Smith’s warmest admirer of her character in the novel and always cast a critical eye on her portrayal in adaptations. Ms. Dylan filled the part emotionally, but she looked a tad bit more than 17 to Romola who did not look 21 either, so there you have it. On the comedy/tragedy front Tamsin Greig’s interpretation of the garrulous Miss Bates was really heart wrenching to experience in opposition to the ditzy and dotty versions by Sophie Thompson or Prunella Scales in the two 1996 Emma productions. She made me cry at the Box Hill picnic scene. You could really feel her fear and trepidation as a spinster living in genteel poverty at the mercy of the kindness of her neighbors the Woodhouse’s and Mr. Knightey. Blake Ritson gave us a Mr. Elton that I had not thought possible, but I enjoyed. Austen had described him as handsome, which Mr. Ritson certainly is, but I had thought of him as more of a toad than a suave charmer.

My greatest disappointments in characterization were Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Michael Gambon who portrayed Mr. Woodhouse is a legend. He was given little to say and looked way too healthy for the part of a valetudinarian who is frightened by a piece of cake. Christina Cole as the vulgar Mrs. Elton missed the mark completely. Since social rank in marriage was everything in Regency society, she is far too pretty to play a rich woman who would accept a country vicar as a husband. In addition, her delivery of some of Austen’s most brilliantly biting lines was decidedly flat. Laura Pyper as the reserved Miss Jane Fairfax was a beautiful and accomplished foil for Miss Woodhouse, but too demure for my sensibilities. I liked Olivia William’s edgier kettle ready to boil over containment in the 1996 version. Ah Frank Churchill. Rupert Evans looked the part and spoke the part, but he did not live the part. No one in my estimation has yet to fill those boots with enough oozing charm and decided deception.

Now for the cream as Emma says to Harriet. Was this a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s masterpiece of characterization and biting social commentary? Hardly. Screenwriter Sandy Welch has taken the bones of Austen’s brilliant story and padded it with her own words. Very little of Austen’s amazing language remains. A few quotes here and there, but this is entirely her own imagining. Director Jim O’Hanlon has built upon that premise and interjected a totally different tone and energy to Austen’s original subtle and underplayed story that some of her adversaries have said is about nothing. Possibly they felt it was also about nothing and needed to modernize it with heightened emotion and darker depths. Austen revealed in the first chapter of Emma that ‘The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way.’ Ironically, this Emma could have been perfection if the screenwriter and director had heeded Miss Austen’s warning and not used their power to go their own way. As Austen adaptations go, this nonsensical Emma is the best of the last six supplied, but I still feel we have a way to go in interpreting Austen faithfully to the screen. Was it enjoyable? Certainly. Will I watch it again? Without hesitation.

Reviews

Image courtesy © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Join the Emma Twitter Party on Sunday hosted by PBS Masterpiece Classic

Image from Emma 2009: PBS Emma Tweet Party © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE“Why not seize the pleasure at once?” 

Emma (2009), the new mini-series staring Romola Garai as the clever, handsome but misguided Miss Emma Woodhouse premieres on Sunday January 24th on Masterpiece Classic.

Join me as co-host with Vic of Jane Austen’s World, Kali of Emma Adaption Pages, Austen enthusiasts, bonnet drama lovers and the good folks at Materpiece PBS for a red carpet premiere Tweet party during the broadcast starting at 9:00 to 11:00 pm ET on Twitter or Tweetgrid.

Comment on the production, ask questions and join in the celebration by using hashtag #emma_pbs.

Follow this link to the Emma Tweet Party on TweetGrid

For additional information, visit the official Emma Tweet Party page at the Masterpiece Classic website

Remember to use hashtag #emma_pbs in your posts to be included in the festivities

Twitter accounts for co-hosts & PBS

Laurel Ann tweets as Austenprose
Vic tweets as janeaustenworld
Kali tweets as magicskyway
PBS tweets as PBS
Masterpiece Classic tweets as masterpiecepbs

Image courtesy © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE