“EMMA” (1972) Review
I am aware of at least four adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”. But I have noticed that the one adaptation that rarely attracts the attention of the novelist’s fans is the 1972 BBC miniseries, “EMMA”.
Directed by John Glenister and adapted by Denis Constanduros, “EMMA” told the story of the precocious younger daughter of a wealthy landowner that resides near
the village of Highbury. Emma Woodhouse imagines herself to be naturally gifted matchmaker, following her self-declared success in arranging a love match between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village widower. Following their marriage, Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, a young woman named Harriet Smith. However, Emma’s efforts to match Harriet with Highbury’s vicar, Mr. Elton, end in disaster. Also the return of two former Highbury residents, Jane Fairfax and Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, and her continuing efforts to find a husband for Harriet leads Emma to question her talents as a matchmaker and her feelings for long time neighbor and friend, George Knightley.
Aired in six episodes, this “EMMA” was given the opportunity to be a lot more faithful to Austen’s novel. Many critics and fans would view this as an example of the miniseries’ ability to delve deeper into the story’s plots and characterizations. I do not know if I would agree. The 1815 novel seems such a strong piece of work that even a 90 to 120 minute film could do justice to the story by adhering to the main aspects of the plot. Mind you, I have complained about Andrew Davies’ adaptation of the novel in the 1996-97 television movie. But even I cannot consider that a failure.
I do have a few complaints about “EMMA”. The majority of my complaints have to do with the casting. But there were some aspects of the production that I found less than satisfying. Director John Glenister’s direction of major scenes such as the Westons’ Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball failed to impress. The sequence featuring the Westons’ Christmas party lacked the holiday atmosphere that I found in the other versions. And I failed to noticed any sense of a change in the weather that led the Woodhouses and the Knightleys to depart from Randalls (the Westons’ estate) earlier than they had intended. As for the Crown Inn ball, it struck me as somewhat rushed. Dialogue seemed to dominate the entire sequence . . . to the point where only one dance was featured to the tune of the miniseries’ theme song. Both Glenister and screenwriter Denis Constanduros made such a big effort in building up the ball in the previous episode or two. But when it came to the actual execution, it simply fell flat and rushed for me. Even worse, they failed to provide the audience with the Emma/Knightley dance, which could have provided the first real hint of romantic feelings between the pair. And what happened to Jane Fairfax and Mr. Elton at the Box Hill picnic? Where were they? Frank Churchill’s flirting with Emma during the picnic had led to Jane’s eventual breakdown and observations of the Eltons’ quick marriage. The Box Hill sequence played an important part in Jane and Frank’s relationship. But without Jane in the scene, the importance of their storyline was somewhat robbed.
And there were performances, or should I say . . . casting that seemed rather off to me. Fiona Walker made an interesting Mrs. Augusta Elton. In fact, she was downright memorable. However, her Mrs. Elton came off as rather heavy-handed . . . to the point that she seemed more like an over-the-top 1970s divorcee, instead of a vicar’s pushy and ambitious wife of Regency England. She seemed to lack both Juliet Stevenson and Christina Cole’s talent for sly and subtle humor. Belinda Tighe gave a solid performance as Emma’s older sister, Isabella Knightley. But she seemed at least a decade-and-a-half older than Doran Godwin’s Emma. Donald Eccles would have made a perfect Mr. Woodhouse, if he had not come off as slightly cold in a few scenes. I find it odd that many Austen fans had complained of Godwin’s occasionally chilly performance. But Eccles seemed even more chilly at times, which is how I never would describe Mr. Woodhouse. At least Godwin’s Emma became warmer and slightly funny in the miniseries’ second half. It seemed as if the arrival of Augusta Elton allowed Godwin to inject more warmth and humor into the role. I also had a problem with Ania Marson as the reserved Jane Fairfax. I understand that Jane went through a great deal of stress and fear, while awaiting for a chance to finally marry Frank. But Marson’s performance struck me as . . . odd. The intense look in her eyes and frozen expression made her resemble a budding serial killer.
I really enjoyed Robert East’s portrayal of the mercurial Frank Churchill. Although I felt that East did not seem effective in his portrayal of Frank’s penchant for cruel humor and at times, his handling of the character’s many traits seemed a bit off balanced, I still believe that his performance was overall, first-rate. Timothy Peters was excellent as Mr. Elton. In fact, he was spot on. Of all the characters featured in Austen’s novel, Mr. Elton seemed to be the only that has been perfectly cast in all four productions I have seen. I really enjoyed Debbie Bowen’s performance as the slightly naive Harriet Smith. In fact, I believe she was the perfect embodiment of Harriet. One of the funniest scenes in the entire miniseries featured Harriet’s efforts to make up her mind on which color ribbons she wanted to purchase. And Constance Chapman made an excellent Miss Bates. She perfectly conveyed all of the character’s likeability and verbosity that made her irritable to Emma. And the scene that featured Emma’s attempt to apologize for the insult during the Box Hill picnic was beautifully acted by Chapman.
But I was impressed by John Carson’s performance as George Knightley. Perhaps he seemed a bit old for the role, at age 45. But he perfectly conveyed all of Mr. Knightley’s warmth, dry humor and love for Emma. And surprisingly, he and Doran Godwin had a strong screen chemistry. I also have to give credit to Doran Godwin for a first-rate portrayal of Emma Woodhouse. Mind you, there were times in the first three episodes when she seemed a bit too chilly for the gregarious Emma. But Godwin did an excellent job in developing the character into a more mature young woman, who became mindful of her flaws. And as I had stated earlier, her Emma also became warmer and slightly funnier upon the introduction of Augusta Elton.
There were also aspects of the miniseries’ production that I enjoyed. Aside from the Weston Christmas party, I was very impressed by Tim Harvey’s production designs. The miniseries’ photography seemed crisp and colorful, even after 39 years. I found this impressive, considering that most BBC television miniseries between 1971 and 1986 seemed to fade over the years. I also liked Joan Ellacott’s costume designs – especially for Emma and Jane. However, I noticed that the high lace featured in some of Emma’s dresses seemed a bit theatrical and cheap . . . as if they came off outfits found in some minor costume warehouse.
Yes, I do have some quibbles regarding the production and casting for “EMMA”. After all, there is no such thing as perfect. But the good definitely outweighed the bad. And for a miniseries with six episodes, I can happily say that it failed to bore me. Personally, I think it is the best Jane Austen adaptation from the 1970s and 1980s I have ever seen.