Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, January 25, 2010

Jane Austen's Emma gets a lively start-off from Masterpiece Classic

The newest film adaptation(to Americans,that is)of Emma by Jane Austen debuted last night on PBS' Masterpiece Classic,to much fanfare and even a Twitter party hosted by renown JA bloggers Laurel Ann from Austenprose,Vic at Jane Austen's World and Kali Pappas from Emma Adaptations. No doubt a good time was had by all who attended.

I must confess that Emma is not my favorite Austen novel,mainly due to the heroine's headstrong nature that even her creator declared "no one will but myself like much",yet the girl does grow on you after awhile.

The film versions that I prefer best of this story are the 1996 Andrew Davies scripted made for TV movie with Kate Beckinsale as the lead and Clueless,which used the book as a template for Alicia Silverstone's Beverly Hills heroine,also in the nineties. Hard acts to follow,but fortunately for audiences both old and new,the theme of young people who think they know everything but discover that they really know nothing is timeless.

Sandy Welch is the screenwriter for this version and she starts off the show with an almost Dickensian approach to the three major characters that are destined to reconnect with one another in Highbury:Emma(Romola Garai),Frank Churchill(Rupert Evans) and Jane Fairfax(Laura Pyper). The deaths in their families which formed their childhood paths in life are briefly detailed and get things off on a somber note,something that the book is really not known for.

Their back stories are correct and in keeping with the established source material but fleshing them out right at the top(plus an expansion into Emma's early childhood)is a little disconcerting for those expecting the usual liveliness of the first chapters:

Despite such a gloomy beginning,the proceedings do take a quick upturn as Emma dives into her role as matchmaker,determined to find new found friend Harriet Smith(Louise Dylan)a much more suitable to Emma's social status suitor like Mr. Elton(Blake Ritson)rather than the man Harriet's heart is already inclined towards,the down to earth farmer Robert Martin(Jefferson Hall).

This leads to a major debate between Emma and Mr. Knightley(Jonny Lee Miller)who see this romance from very different perspectives indeed. The chemistry between Miller and Garai really sparks off at this point,which makes the story come more alive and displays one of the best features of any Austen novel,those moments of open discussion about the social morays of the day and just how valid they really are:

That clicking of personas,not only between the main love lorn leads,but with supporting players such as Michael Gambon's Mr. Woodhouse,Jodhi May as former governess and close friend Mrs. Weston and Tasmin Grieg as the charmingly chatty Miss Bates,helps to smooth over some of the potential sore spots like scenes that seem to be unnecessary(the meeting between Robert Martin and Mr. Knightly,for example. It's already alluded to in the dialogue when Knightly and Emma talk about the marriage proposal-what purpose does it serve to add it into the action other than to get a good wide view of the Donwell estate onscreen?).

I don't mean to nitpick,but in my opinion some details of a plot work best when not shown right away or at all. It's a tricky balance for any artist to figure out which of his/her cards to lay down on the table. You don't want to drag out the game yet at the same time,you want to keep some suspense to the proceedings in order to keep folks playing along. Changes in story telling style can sometimes make a classic story more watchable as a film but they need to advance the plot instead of slow it down.

Even with my minor grumblings,I did enjoy the first part of Emma and am looking forward to the next. Romola Garai is delightfully adapt at capturing both the stubbornness and the sweetness of the character,with Jonny Lee Miller being a well matched Mr. Knightly for her to play off of.

Louise Dylan is a lovely Harriet Smith,even if at times she appears to be a tad too ditzy(never did like that riddle bit,poor Harriet always comes off as an airhead there)and while I wish Gambon had some more screen time,he is fun to watch. The second half of this three part series gets into the infamous Fairfax/Churchill section of the story,where things should really heat up and hopefully the introduction of Mrs. Elton(Christina Cole)stirs the pot nicely.

Of course,I had to start rereading Emma again after the show,which is the greatest benefit one can get from a new film version of Austen's works. Having the perfect excuse to experience Jane Austen's words and enter her world of imagination for the umpteenth time is worth it's weight in gold:


Anonymous said...

Lovely observations and input to the first episode. I enjoyed this adaptation, but like you, was troubled by the changes in the story and ommission of Austen's beautiful language. Thanks for the link.

lady t said...

You're very welcome and thank you for the compliments-hopefully,things will get better in Part two:)