AEI80DW-O Entry #5: 2009's _Emma:_ learning about reality the hard way

Jan 31, 2010
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Beautiful production values, settings and costumes. Very close to the original novel.

Cons:Emma can be very unlikeable at times.

The Bottom Line: A lovely rendition of the original novel, and set in an England that just glows.

As I and the Ghia started down the mountain, I noticed that once again my location had changed. This time, the ferry wasn't heading across to the Jersey shore as I had thought, but rather it was the skyline of Vancouver Canada and beyond that, Victoria, that was welcoming me. Even the incessant rain couldn't wear me down, tonight I would be sleeping in the Empress Hotel, with a sumptuous tea to warm me up, and a new DVD in the player. Dedicated Anglophile that I am, what could possibly be better than that? And of all things, it was a story set in a very English village. As the Ghia rumbled up on the ramp into the ferry for Victoria, I couldn't help the grin on my face...

It seems that every year brings a new version of one of Jane Austen's classic novels to the screen, usually being presented by the BBC on Public Broadcasting here in the States. And the odds are very good that I will be watching it, as I adore the novels of Jane Austen, and find something new every time I watch an adaptation.

This time, it was Emma, Jane Austen's fifth novel, and one of her most popular coming to the screen. Living in the country town of Highbury, in the exquisitely furnished and maintained manor of Hartfield, Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai) is a lovely, blonde miss of breeding and good manners. This however, does not mean that she has much sense, for she tends to leap to conclusions without thinking it through first, and when her meddling results in a love match and marriage between her former governess (Jodhi May) and a local gentleman, Mr. Weston (Robert Bathhurst), Emma thinks that she has found her calling in life -- to arrange marriages.

Not that Emma ever intends to marry herself. No, no, no, not at all, she has no true need to ever wed, as she has fortune enough and has never really fallen in love herself. And upon that pedestal of her own making, she feels quite secure looking down her pretty nose at everyone else. Besides, her fretful, hypochondriac father (Michael Gambon) needs her to take care of him, especially since his other daughter, Isabella, has gone and married the brother of Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller), a good neighbor and the owner of the palatial Donwell Abbey.

Emma's next target for matrimony is Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan), a winsome girl who is a boarder at a local girl's school. Unfortunately for Harriet, she is literally a nobody, born of good people, but unacknowledged. This makes her rather lower than the gentry class that Emma belongs to, but Emma feels that she can arrange a good marriage for her. And who else could deserve such a good soul as Harriet as the local vicar, Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson)? So Emma meddles, forcing Harriet to turn down a perfectly good match with a local farmer who loves Harriet deeply.

But it seems that Mr. Elton is more interested in Emma, and more importantly, her marriage portion of 30,000 pounds. To him, Harriet is a nothing, a no one, and certainly not suitable for him! As Emma finds out during a carriage ride. It's a humbling set-down for her, but clearly not enough for her to stop in her matchmaking. Again she tries to set up Harriet, this time with a newcomer to the neighborhood, Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans), the son that Mr. Weston turned over to his sister to raise and who was adopted by him.

But as we see, Emma remains entirely oblivious to the havoc she's making, and the pain that she is causing. The only person who has the strength to scold her for her behaviour is Mr. Knightley, but will it be in time to keep Emma from ruining several lives before she is done?

Romola Garai makes for a wonderful Emma Woodhouse, and she clearly wears her emotions on her face. She knows when she is making mistakes, and while her actions are make from sheer good heartedness to see people be happy, her blunders are not at all malicious. It's that trait that saves Emma from being a completely detestable person, and while we might get annoyed with her, we can still like her for who she is. I liked this version of Emma, for she is very human and very likeable at the end, and she is clearly learning from her errors.

The secondary actors in this, especially Tamsin Greig as the poverty-stricken Miss Bates, and Christina Cole as the vile Mrs. Elton make memorable turns.

I have to say, this has been one of the more beautiful productions that I've seen on the screen lately. The colours here are vivid and sun drenched, and well, nothing else can really stand in for the grand estates of England. Loseley Park in Surrey is used for Donwell Abbey, and Squerreys Court in Kent for Hartfield, and the village of Chilham, Kent does well as the local town of Highbury.

Inevitably, there are going to be comparisons between this version and the other versions of the film. I do say that this one is far better than the one with Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Kingsley -- albeit that Mr. Northam is far handsomer than Jonny Lee Miller in the role. As to the one with Kate Beckinsale in the title role, this version is a bit longer and has more of the backstory involved so that the viewer has a greater understanding of why Emma does what she does, and more of the interplay among the other characters, especially Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.

The DVD version of this is due to be released in the US in February, and I'll be posting an update on whatever extra features that it has to offer when I get it.

Other film versions of the novel:
Emma (Paltrow)
Emma (Beckinsale)

Overall, five stars. This one is worth the time to watch.

This is my Movies entry into the Around Epinions In 80 Days Write-Off.

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