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Monday, March 24, 2008

Spending Easter Sunday with Jane Austen's Emma

The Complete Jane Austen series started up again this past Sunday,with one of my favorite adaptations of Emma. I must confess that Emma(charmingly brought to life by Kate Beckinsale) is the only Austen novel that I don't truly adore. Yes,I do find many of the characters amusing,such as the talkative Miss Bates,the supercilious Mrs. Elton and of course, the endearing hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse and the mysterious goings on between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill make for an intriguing plot twist and some good character development as well.

No,it is Miss Woodhouse herself that keeps me at bay-as Austen once said about her,she a heroine"whom no-one but myself will much like." Emma is a hard girl to love at times,as Mr. Knightley(Mark Strong) can attest to;she considers herself to be very clever about the world around(as small and limited as it is)and thinks nothing of manipulating people into doing what she prefers them to do,or at least believing that she can.

Part of the reason that Emma seeks out the companionship of Harriet Smith(well played by Samantha Morton-as much as I love Toni Collette,Morton does a much better job in this role than Toni does in the Paltrow version,sorry!)is that Harriet is more than willing to be lead down the garden path leashed by Emma's influence. The only one who seems to be on the lookout for what is best for both girls is Mr. Knightley,who may seem like he's scolding Emma most of the time but he is the most mature person in Highbury who steps up to the plate and calls it like he sees it:

However,after rereading and watching a couple of film versions of the story,you do gain a better understanding of what makes Emma Woodhouse tick.

After all,she is raised practically as an only child(her sister was married and out of the house before Emma reached puberty)with few opportunities to venture beyond Highbury due to her father's health concerns(real and imaged)and her closest adult mentor,Miss Taylor,treated her more like a friend than a child.

However,her former governess is correct when she says about Emma's character,"with all her faults,she is an excellent creature." Emma's cleverness does get the best of her at times,especially under the influence of Frank Churchill(who is in many ways like the naughty by nature brother she never had)but fortunately,Knightley is there to keep her grounded:

Andrew Davies wrote the screenplay here,which makes this version of Emma that much more enjoyable,along with a cast that has several regular Austen adaptation players in it(Bernard Hepton and Samantha Bond were father and daughter in the mid-1980s miniseries of Mansfield Park and are father and governess here. Mrs. Elton,Lucy Robinson,was one of the Bingley sisters in P&P and Olivia Williams,who is Jane Fairfax,was most recently seen as Jane Austen herself in Miss Austen Regrets).

Davies not only balances the focus between the Harriet Smith/Mr. Elton botched romance and the Fairfax/Churchill mystery(which the Paltrow version shortchanges,in my opinion),he slips in bits of visual social commentary on the class struggles of the time period,showing some of the poverty that co-exists near the well to do lives of Emma and her neighbors with humor.

Showing the difficulties of servants having to cart enough furniture and food to make a picnic at Box Hill agreeable and the rattling on of Mrs. Elton about how "natural" it is to pick one's own strawberries while a footman stands by to move a cushion for her to kneel on as she does so,adds some real perspective onto the story and highlights the satirical tone Austen takes with the narrative:

One of Davies' original notions to the plot is the harvest dance ending,which he uses to tie up the loose ends of the story together. The only real criticism that I feel bold enough to make about Austen's writing is that it takes her too long to get to the end of the book with Emma. The harvest dance works well to settle all scores and bring things to a happy close. If you haven't seen this version of Emma,please do so-it is available on video and the harvest dance is the cherry on top of this sweetly sharp sundae:

Another Andrew Davies adaptation will end PBS' Jane Austen run,with a miniseries version of Sense and Sensibility that begins next Sunday and ends on April 6. Davies has mentioned in some of the promos for the new S&S that this will be quite steamy in certain parts. Before anyone gets into a major uproar over this,let's give it a chance here. There is a lot of passionate behavior in the novel,both expressed and withheld:

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