“EMMA” (2009) Review

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“EMMA” (2009) Review

After a great deal of delay, I finally sat down to watch “EMMA”, the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel. First seen on the BBC during the fall of 2009, this four-part miniseries had been adapted by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon.

“EMMA” followed the story of Emma Woodhouse, the younger daughter of a wealthy landowner in Regency England. As a dominant figure in the provincial world of fictional Highbury, Emma believed that she was a skilled matchmaker and repeatedly attempted to meddle in the love lives of others. After successfully arranging the recent marriage of her governess, Miss Anne Taylor, to another local landowner named Mr. Weston; Emma set out to make a poor young boarder at a local girls’ school named Harriet Smith her new protégé. Unfortunately, her plans to find a new husband for Harriet ended in disaster.

I have been aware of other adaptations of ”EMMA” for the past decade-and-a-half, including the 1996 Miramax movie that starred Gwyneth Paltrow and the 1996 ITV version, starring Kate Beckinsale. And considering that I quickly became a major fan of the Paltrow version, I found myself curious to see how this recent four-part miniseries would compare. Many fans seemed to believe that the miniseries format allow this version to be superior over the others. After all, the format allowed screenwriter Sandy Welch to follow Austen’s novel with more detail. Other fans still view the Miramax version as the one superior to others. There are fans who viewed the Beckinsale version as the best. And many have a high regard for the modern day version, ”CLUELESS”, which starred Alicia Silverstone. And there are even those who believe that the 1972 miniseries, which starred Doran Godwin as the most faithful, and therefore the best. My opinion? I will admit that I became a fan of this miniseries, just as quickly as I became a fan of the Paltrow movie.

One of the aspects that I love about ”EMMA” was the main character’s backstory featured in the miniseries’ first five to ten minutes. Most fans of Austen’s novel frowned upon this introduction, considering that it was not featured in the novel. Not only did I enjoy it, I believe the sequence provided a possible explanation for Mr. Woodhouse’s agoraphobia and fear of losing his daughters, Emma and the older Isabella. I also enjoyed the miniseries’ photography. First, cinematographer Adam Suschitzky shot the series with rich colors – mainly bold and pastels. Also, both Suschitzky and director Jim O’Hanlon did an excellent job in filming the series with some provocative shots – many of them featuring windows. One of my favorite shots featured moments in Episode Two in which O’Hanlon, Suschitzky and film editor Mark Thornton cleverly conveyed the change of seasons from winter to early spring. Contributing to the miniseries’ colorful look were costumes supervised by Amanda Keable. They perfectly blended with Suschitzky’s photography, as shown in the images below:

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I confess that I have never read ”EMMA”. I hope to do so in the near future. I could say this is the reason why I had no problems with the changes featured in Sandy Welch’s screenplay, whereas a good number of Austen’s fans did. The biggest complaint seemed to be that Welch did not convey much of the author’s language or dialogue. I guess I could not care less, especially after I had learned that Emma Thompson’s screenplay for the 1995 adaptation of ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” had very little of Austen’s dialogue. I believe that Welch did an excellent job in adapting ”EMMA”. She (along with stars Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller) captured the chemistry and wit of Emma and Mr. Knightley with some very funny banter. The screenplay also featured some comic moments that either left me smiling or laughing heartily. Those scenes included Mr. Elton’s attempts to woo Emma, while she drew a picture of Harriet; Mr. Woodhouse’s consistent reluctance to leave Hatfield (most of the time); and Emma’s first meeting with Mr. Elton’s new bride, the obnoxious and less wealthy Augusta Hawkins Elton. But Emma’s hostile soliloquy, following her meeting with Mrs. Elton, left me in stitches. I thought it was one of the funniest moments in the entire miniseries. But ”EMMA” was not all laughs. Welch’s screenplay also featured some poignant and romantic moments between Emma and Mr. Knightley. And this is the only version of the Austen novel that truly conveyed the poignant and warm relationship between Emma and her father.

However, I did have some problems with ”EMMA”. Most viewers seemed to be of the opinion that Episodes One and Two were a bit off or that they barely captured the novel’s spirit. Most of my problems with the miniseries stemmed from Episode Four, the last one. There seemed to be something heavy-handed about the Box Hill sequence and I do not know whether to blame the actors, O’Hanlon’s direction or Welch’s screenplay. This heavy-handedness could have been deliberate, due to the sequence occurring on a hot day. But I am not certain. Some of the dialogue struck me as a bit clunky – especially those moments in which Frank Churchill and Mr. Weston tried to use clever words to praise Emma. Rupert Evans’ portrayal of Frank in this scene struck me as oppressive. And I barely missed Emma’s insult to Miss Bates, due to Romola Garai’s performance. She almost threw away the line. I realize that it was Jane Fairfax who refused to see Emma, following the Box Hill picnic in the novel, instead of Miss Bates. Which is exactly what Welch added in her screenplay. Pity. I think it would have been more dramatic if the screenwriter had not been so faithful to Austen’s novel and allow Miss Bates to reject Emma’s presence following the picnic. Just as writer-director Douglas McGrath did in his adaptation in the 1996 Miramax film. And Welch’s screenplay never allowed viewers to witness Harriet Smith’s reaction to Emma and Mr. Knightley’s engagement . . . or her reconciliation with Robert Martin.

Despite any misgivings I might have about ”EMMA”, I really enjoyed it. And a great deal of my enjoyment came from Romola Garai’s portrayal of the titled character. Despite a few moments of garrulous mannerisms, I found her performance to be a delight. Her Emma Woodhouse did not seem to be that much of a meddler – except in regard to Harriet’s relationship with Robert Martin. But she did inject her performance with an arrogance that usually comes from a privileged youth that believes he or she is always right. And I absolutely adored her hostile rant against the newly arrived Mrs. Elton. Not only did she have a strong chemistry with Rupert Evans (Frank Churchill), but also with Michael Gambon, who portrayed Mr. Woodhouse. In fact, Garai and Gambon effectively conveyed a tender daughter-father relationship. Yet, her chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller surprisingly struck the strongest chord. I really enjoyed the crackling banter between them and their developing romance. Most fans had complained about her penchant for being a bit too expressive with her eyes. That did not bother me one bit. However, I found one moment in her performance to be over-the-top – namely the scene in which Emma expressed dismay at leaving Mr. Woodhouse alone in order to marry Mr. Knightley.

Speaking of the owner of Donwell, many fans of the novel had expressed dismay when Jonny Lee Miller was cast in the role of George Knightley. Despite Miller’s previous experience with Jane Austen in two adaptations of ”MANSFIELD PARK”, most fans believed he could not do justice to the role. Many feared that he was too young for the role. I found this ironic, considering that Miller was around the same age as the literary Mr. Knightley; whereas Jeremy Northam and Mark Strong were both a few years younger than the character. After viewing the first half of Episode One, I could tell that Miller was already putting his own stamp on the role. Thanks to Miller’s performance, I found myself contemplating another possible aspect of Knightley’s character. During his proposal to Emma in Episode Four, he admitted to being highly critical. I could not help but wonder if this trait was a manifestation of some arrogance in his character. This seemed very apparent in a scene in Episode Two in which Knightley made a critical comment about Emma’s character in an insulting manner. He was lucky that she did not respond with anything stronger than a reproachful stare. Another aspect of Miller’s performance that I enjoyed was the dry wit and observant manner that he conveyed in Mr. Knightley’s character. In the end, I found his performance to be very attractive and well done.

Michael Gambon, who happens to be a favorite of mine, gave a hilarious performance as Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. I have read a few complaints that Gambon seemed too robust to be portraying the character. I found this complaint rather strange. For I had no idea that one had to look sickly in order to be a hypochondriac or an agoraphobic. I suspect that Gambon used Welch’s description of Mrs. Woodhouse’s tragic death to convey his character’s agoraphobic tendencies. This gave his character a poignant twist that blended wonderfully with his comic performance. Another performance that mixed comedy with just a touch of tragedy came from Tasmin Grey, who portrayed the impoverished Miss Bates. As from being a spinster and the poor daughter of Highbury’s former vicar, Miss Bates was also a silly and verbose woman. Grey portrayed these aspects of Miss Bates’ personality with perfect comic timing. At the same time, she did a beautiful job in conveying the character’s despair and embarrassment over her poverty. Two other performances really impressed me. One belonged to Christina Cole, who portrayed the meddling and obnoxious Mrs. Augusta Elton. Her performance seemed so deliciously funny and sharp that I believed it rivaled Juliet Stevenson’s portrayal of the same character from Douglas McGrath’s film. Almost just as funny was Blake Ralston, who portrayed Highbury’s current vicar, Mr. Elton. He did a marvelous job of portraying the vicar’s lack of backbone; and a slimy and obsequious manner, while attempting to woo Emma in Episodes One and Two.

Rupert Evans did a solid job in portraying Frank Churchill’s energetic and sometimes cruel personality. Although there were times when he threatened to overdo it. Laura Pyper (Christina Cole’s co-star from the TV series ”HEX”) gave a slightly tense performance as Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates’ accomplished niece that Emma disliked. Pyper did a solid job in portraying the reticent Jane and the tension she suffered from being Frank’s secret fiancée. Louise Dylan made an amiable, yet slightly dimwitted Harriet Martin. Although there were times when her Harriet seemed more intelligent than Emma. I do not know whether or not this was deliberate on O’Hanlon’s part.

If there is one thing I can say about ”EMMA” is that it quickly became one of my favorite Jane Austen adaptations. Yes, it had its flaws. But I believe that its virtues – an excellent adaptation by Sandy Welch, beautiful photography by Adam Suschitzky and a first-rate cast led by Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller – all well directed by Jim O’Hanlon. It seemed a pity that it failed to earn an Emmy nomination for Best Miniseries. And I find it even harder to believe that ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” managed to earn one and ”EMMA” did not.

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JANE AUSTEN’s Heroine Gallery

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Below is a look at the fictional heroines created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . .

JANE AUSTEN’S HEROINE GALLERY

Elinor 4 Elinor 3 Elinor 2 Elinor 1

Elinor Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Elinor Dashwood is the oldest Dashwood sister who symbolizes a coolness of judgement and strength of understanding. This leads her to be her mother’s frequent counsellor, and sometimes shows more common sense than the rest of her family. Elinor could have easily been regarded as a flawless character, if it were not for her penchant of suppressing her emotions just a little too much. Ironically, none of the actresses I have seen portray Elinor were never able to portray a nineteen year-old woman accurately.

Elinor - Joanna David

1. Joanna David (1971) – She gave an excellent performance and was among the few who did not indulge in histronics. My only complaint was her slight inability to project Elinor’s passionate nature behind the sensible facade.

Elinor - Irene Richards

2. Irene Richards (1981) – I found her portrayal of Elinor to be solid and competent. But like David, she failed to expose Elinor’s passionate nature behind the stoic behavior.

Elinor - Emma Thompson

3. Emma Thompson (1995) – Many have complained that she was too old to portray Elinor. Since the other actresses failed to convincingly portray a nineteen year-old woman, no matter how sensible, I find the complaints against Thompson irrelevant. Thankfully, Thompson did not bother to portray Elinor as a 19 year-old. And she managed to perfectly convey Elinor’s complexities behind the sensible facade.

Elinor - Hattie Morahan

4. Hattie Morahan (2008) – She gave an excellent performance and was able to convey Elinor’s passionate nature without any histronics. My only complaint was her tendency to express Elinor’s surprise with this deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.

Marianne 4 Marianne 3 Marianne 2 Marianne 1

Marianne Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

This second Dashwood sister is a different kettle of fish from the first. Unlike Elinor, Marianne is an emotional adolescent who worships the idea of romance and excessive sentimentality. She can also be somewhat self-absorbed, yet at the same time, very loyal to her family.

Marianne - Ciaran Madden

1. Ciaran Madden – Either Madden had a bad director or the actress simply lacked the skills to portray the emotional and complex Marianne. Because she gave a very hammy performance.

Marianne - Tracey Childs

2. Tracey Childs – She was quite good as Marianne, but there were times when she portrayed Marianne as a little too sober and sensible – even early in the story.

Marianne - Kate Winslet

3. Kate Winslet (1995) – The actress was in my personal opinion, the best Marianne Dashwood I have ever seen. She conveyed Marianne’s complex and emotional nature with great skill, leading her to deservedly earn an Oscar nomination.

Marianne - Charity Wakefield

4. Charity Wakefield (2008) – She solidly portrayed the emotional Marianne, but there were moments when her performance seemed a bit mechanical.

Elizabeth 4 Elizabeth 3 Elizabeth 2 Elizabeth 1

Elizabeth Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

Elizabeth is the second of five daughters of an English gentleman and member of the landed gentry. She is probably the wittiest and most beloved of Austen’s heroines. Due to her father’s financial circumstances – despite being a landowner – Elizabeth is required to seek a marriage of convenience for economic security, despite her desire to marry for love.

Elizabeth - Greer Garson

1. Greer Garson (1940) – Her performance as Elizabeth Bennet has been greatly maligned in recent years, due to the discovery that she was in her mid-30s when she portrayed the role. Personally, I could not care less about her age. She was still marvelous as Elizabeth, capturing both the character’s wit and flaws perfectly.

Elizabeth - Elizabeth Garvie

2. Elizabeth Garvie (1980) – More than any other actress, Garvie portrayed Elizabeth with a soft-spoken gentility. Yet, she still managed to infuse a good deal of the character’s wit and steel with great skill.

Elizabeth - Jennifer Ehle

3. Jennifer Ehle (1995) – Ehle is probably the most popular actress to portray Elizabeth and I can see why. She was perfect as the witty, yet prejudiced Elizabeth. And she deservedly won a BAFTA award for her performance.

Elizabeth - Keira Knightley

4. Keira Knightley (2005) – The actress is not very popular with the public these days. Which is why many tend to be critical of her take on Elizabeth Bennet. Personally, I found it unique in that hers was the only Elizabeth in which the audience was given more than a glimpse of the effects of the Bennet family’s antics upon her psyche. I was more than impressed with Knightley’s performance and thought she truly deserved her Oscar nomination.

Jane 4 Jane 3 Jane 2 Jane 1

Jane Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

The oldest of the Bennet daughters is more beautiful, but just as sensible as her younger sister, Elizabeth. However, she has a sweet and shy nature and tends to make an effort to see the best in everyone. Her fate of a happily ever after proved to be almost as important as Elizabeth’s.

Jane - Maureen O Sullivan

1. Maureen O’Sullivan (1940) – She was very charming as Jane Bennet. However, her Jane seemed to lack the sense that Austen’s literary character possessed.

Jane - Sabina Franklin

2. Sabina Franklyn (1980) – She gave a solid performance as the sweet-tempered Jane. However, her take on the role made the character a little more livelier than Austen’s original character.

Jane - Susannah Harker

3. Susannah Harker (1995) – I really enjoyed Harker’s take on the Jane Bennet role. She did a great job in balancing Jane’s sweet temper, inclination to find the best in everyone and good sense that Elizabeth ignored many times.

Jane - Rosamund Pike

4. Rosamund Pike (2005) – She gave a pretty good performance as the sweet and charming Jane, but rarely got the chance to act as the sensible older sister, due to director Joe Wright’s screenplay.

Fanny 3 Fanny 2 Fanny 1

Fanny Price – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Unfortunately, Fanny happens to be my least favorite Jane Austen heroine. While I might find some of her moral compass admirable and resistance to familial pressure to marry someone she did not love, I did not admire her hypocrisy and passive aggressive behavior. It is a pity that she acquired what she wanted in the end – namely her cousin Edmund Bertram as a spouse – without confronting his or her own personality flaws.

Fanny - Sylvestra de Tourzel

1. Sylvestra de Tourzel (1983) – She had some good moments in her performance as Fanny Price. Unfortunately, there were other moments when I found her portrayal stiff and emotionally unconvincing. Thankfully, de Tourzel became a much better actress over the years.

Fanny - Frances O Connor

2. Frances O’Connor (1999) – The actress portrayed Fanny as a literary version of author Jane Austen – witty and literary minded. She skillfully infused a great deal of wit and charm into the character, yet at the same time, managed to maintain Fanny’s innocence and hypocrisy.

Fanny - Billie Piper

3. Billie Piper (2007) – Many Austen fans disliked her portrayal of Fanny. I did not mind her performance at all. She made Fanny a good deal more bearable to me. Piper’s Fanny lacked de Tourzel’s mechanical acting and O’Connor’s portrayal of Fanny as Jane Austen 2.0. More importantly, she did not portray Fanny as a hypocrite, as the other two did.

Emma 4 Emma 3 Emma 2 Emma 1

Emma Woodhouse – “Emma” (1815)

When Jane Austen first created the Emma Woodhouse character, she described the latter as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”. And while there might be a good deal to dislike about Emma – her snobbery, selfishness and occasional lack of consideration for others – I cannot deny that she still remains one of the most likeable Austen heroines for me. In fact, she might be my favorite. She is very flawed, yet very approachable.

Emma - Doran Godwin

1. Doran Godwin (1972) – She came off as a bit haughty in the first half of the 1972 miniseries. But halfway into the production, she became warmer and funnier. Godwin also had strong chemistry with her co-stars John Carson and Debbie Bowen.

Emma - Gwyneth Paltrow

2. Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) – Paltrow’s portryal of Emma has to be the funniest I have ever seen. She was fantastic. Paltrow captured all of Emma’s caprices and positive traits with superb comic timing.

Emma - Kate Beckinsale

3. Kate Beckinsale (1996-97) – She did a very good job in capturing Emma’s snobbery and controlling manner. But . . . her Emma never struck me as particularly funny. I think Beckinsale developed good comic timing within a few years after this movie.

Emma - Romola Garai

4. Romola Garai (2009) – Garai was another whose great comic timing was perfect for the role of Emma. My only complaint was her tendency to mug when expressing Emma’s surprise.

Catherine 2 Catherine 1

Catherine Morland – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I have something in common with the Catherine Morland character . . . we are both bookworms. However, Catherine is addicted to Gothic novel and has an imagination that nearly got the best of her. But she is also a charmer who proved to be capable of growth.

Catherine - Katharine Schlesinger

1. Katharine Schlesinger (1986) – I cannot deny that I disliked the 1986 version of Austen’s 1817 novel. However, I was impressed by Schlesinger’s spot on portrayal of the innocent and suggestive Katherine.

Catherine - Felicity Jones

2. Felicity Jones (2007) – She did a superb job in not only capturing Catherine’s personality, she also gave the character a touch of humor in her scenes with actor J.J. Feild that I really appreciated.

Anne 3 Anne 2 Anne 1

Anne Elliot – “Persuasion” (1818)

Anne - Ann Firbank

1. Ann Firbank (1971) – Although I had issues with her early 70s beehive and constant use of a pensive expression, I must admit that I rather enjoyed her portrayal of the regretful Anne. And unlike many others, her age – late 30s – did not bother me one bit.

Anne - Amanda Root

2. Amanda Root (1995) – Root’s performance probably created the most nervous Anne Elliot I have ever seen on screen. However, she still gave a superb performance.

Anne - Sally Hawkins

3. Sally Hawkins (2007) – She was excellent as the soft-spoken Anne. More importantly, she did a wonderful job in expressing Anne’s emotions through her eyes.

“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

There have been many films, television episodes and documentaries that either featured or were about aviation pioneer and movie producer Howard Hughes. But Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic, “THE AVIATOR”, was the first that featured a large-scale production about his life. 

Set twenty years between 1927 and 1947, “THE AVIATOR” centered on Hughes’ life from the late 1920s to 1947 during the time he became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate, while simultaneously growing more unstable due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie opened with the Houston-born millionaire living in California and producing his World War I opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”. He hires Noah Dietrich to run his Texas operation, the Hughes Tool Company, while he becomes increasingly obsessed with finishing the movie.

“THE AVIATOR” not only covered Hughes’ production of “HELL’S ANGELS” in the 1920s; it also covered his life during the next fifteen to twenty years. The 1930s featured his romance with actress Katherine Hepburn and his aviation achievements in the 1930s, including his purchase of Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). However, the second half of the movie covers the years 1941-47, which featured his relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue, his obsession with construction his military flying ship the Hercules (Spruce Goose), his near-fatal crash in the XF-11 reconnaissance plane, his legal and financial problems that led to conflicts with both Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and most importantly his increasingly inability to deal with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have never maintained a strong interest in Howard Hughes before I saw “THE AVIATOR”. One, his politics have always repelled me. And two, most productions tend to portray Hughes from an extreme point-of-view, with the exception of Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the 1980 movie, “MELVIN AND HOWARD”, and Terry O’Quinn’s more rational portrayal in 1991’s “THE ROCKETEER”“THE AVIATOR” seemed to be another exception to the rule. With Hughes as the main character, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Josh Logan managed to delve into the millionaire to create a portrait of a admittedly fascinating and complex man. Foreknowledge of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder allowed Scorcese, Logan and DiCaprio to approach the subject, instead of dismissing it as a sign of the millionaire’s growing insanity. Both Scorsese and Logan seemed willing to explore nearly all aspects of Hughes’ personality – both good and bad – with the exception of one area. I noticed that both director and screenwriter had failed to touch upon the man’s racism. With the exception of one brief scene in which Hughes briefly pondered on any alleged sins of a fictional columnist named Roland Sweet, the movie never really hinted, let alone explored this darker aspect of Hughes’ personality. I have to applaud both Scorsese and Logan for the manner in which they ended the film. “THE AVIATOR” could have easily ended on a triumphant note, following Hughes’ defeat of both Juan Trippe and Senator Owen Brewster. Instead, the movie ended with Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder slipping out of control, hinting the descent that he would experience over thenext three decades.

Many recent biopics tend to portray the lives and experiences of its subjects via flashbacks. Why? I do not know. This method is no longer revolutionary or even original. Yet, many filmmakers still utilize flashbacks in biopics as if it is something new. Thankfully, Scorsese and Logan tossed the use of flashbacks in the wind and decided to tell Hughes’ story in a linear narrative. And I say, thank God, because flashbacks are becoming a bore. However, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, with the help of Legend Films, did something unique for the film’s look. Since “THE AVIATOR” was set during Hughes’ first twenty years in Hollywood, the pair decided to utilize the Multicolor process (in which a film appeared in shades of red and cyan blue) for the film’s first 50 minutes, set between 1927 and 1935. This color process was available during this period. Hollywood began using Three-strip Technicolor after 1935. And to emulate this, Scorsese, Richardson and Legend Films tried to re-create this look for the scenes set after 1935. And I must say that I really enjoyed what they did. Apparently, so did the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Richardson won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work.

“THE AVIATOR” earned ten (10) more Academy Award nominations; including including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Original Screenplay for Logan, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Alan Alda, Best Supporting Actress for Cate Blanchett, Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, Best Costume Design for Sandy Powell, and Best Art Direction for Robert Guerra, Claude Paré and Luca Tranchino. Along with Richardson, Blanchett, Schoonmaker, Guerra, Paré and Luca all won. I would have been even more happy if Scorsese, DiCaprio and Logan had also won. But we cannot always get what we want. I realize that “THE AVIATOR” is not the most original biopic ever made. But there is so much about the film’s style, content and the acting that I enjoyed that it has become one of my favorite biopics, anyway. I was especially impressed by Schoonmaker’s editing in the sequence featuring Hughes’ crash of the experimental XF-11 in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, Sandy Powell’s beautiful costumes that covered three decades in Hughes’ life and the rich and gorgeous art designs from the team of Guerra, Paré and Tranchino; who did a superb job of re-creating Southern California between 1927 and 1947.

But no matter how beautiful a movie looked, it is nothing without a first-rate script and an excellent cast. I have already commented on Josh Logan’s screenplay. I might as well do the same about the cast of “THE AVIATOR”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ right-hand man; Ian Holm as Hughes’ minion Professor Fitz; Matt Ross as another one of Hughes’ right-hand men, Glen “Odie” Odekirk; and Kelli Garner as future RKO starlet Faith Domergue. Danny Huston was stalwart, but not particularly memorable as TWA executive, Jack Frye. Jude Law gave an entertaining, yet slightly over-the-top cameo as Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. Adam Scott also tickled my funny bone, thanks to his amusing performance as Hughes’ publicist Johnny Meyer. And Gwen Stefani gave a surprisingly good performance as another film legend, Jean Harlow.

As I had stated before, Cate Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hollywood icon, Katherine Hepburn. At first, I had feared that Blanchett’s performance would turn out to be nothing more than mimicry of Hepburn’s well-known traits. But Blanchett did a superb job of portraying Hepburn as a full-blooded character and stopped short of portraying the other actress as a cliche. I could also say the same for Kate Beckinsale, who gave a more subtle performance as another Hollywood legend, Ava Gardner. At first, Beckinsale’s portrayal of Gardner’s sexuality threatened to seem like a cliche. But the actress managed to portray Gardner as a human being . . . especially in two scenes that featured the latter’s anger at Hughes’ possessive behavior and her successful attempt at drawing the aviator out of his shell, following Congress’ harassment. Alan Alda was superb as the manipulative Maine senator, Owen Brewster, who harassed and prosecuted Hughes on behalf of Pan Am and Juan Trippe. He truly deserved an Oscar nomination for portraying one of the most subtle villains I have ever seen on film. And Alec Baldwin gave a wonderfully sly and subtle performance as the Pan Am founder and Hughes’ business rival.

But the man of the hour who carried a 169 minutes film on his back turned out to be the movie’s leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor, who was twenty-nine to thirty years old at the time, did a superb job of re-capturing nearly every aspect of Howard Hughes’ personality. More importantly, his acting skills enabled him to convey Hughes’ age over a period of twenty years – from 22 to 42. What I really admired about DiCaprio was his ability to maintain control of a performance about a man who was gradual losing control, thanks to his medical condition. I suspect that portraying a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, over a period of two decades must have been quite a task for DiCaprio. But he stepped up to the batter’s plate and in the end, gave one of the best performances of his career.

For me, it seemed a pity that “THE AVIATOR” had failed to cap the Best Picture prize for 2004. Mind you, it is not one of the most original biographical dramas I have ever seen. Then again, I cannot recall a biographical movie that struck me as unusual. Or it could be that the Academy has associated Martin Scorsese with crime dramas about the Mob. In the end, it does not matter. Even after nearly eight years, “THE AVIATOR”, still continues to dazzle me. Martin Scorsese did a superb job in creating one of the best biographical films I have seen in the past two to three decades.

“EMMA” (1996 TV) Review

“EMMA” (1996 TV) Review

Several months after Miramax had released Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”, another version aired on the BBC and later, on the A&E Channel in the U.S. This version turned out to be a 107-minute teleplay, adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence. 

As many Jane Austen fans know, “EMMA” told the story of the younger daughter of an English Regency landowner, with a penchant for meddling in the lives of friends and neighbors. Her meddling in the love life of her new protégé – a young woman named Harriet Smith – ended up having a major impact on the latter’s search for a husband. Emma also becomes involved with Frank Churchill, her former governess’ stepson, and the highly educated granddaughter of her village’s former curate named Jane Fairfax.

This “EMMA” incorporated a heavy emphasis on class structure and conflict, due to Andrew Davies’ adaptation. This emphasis was hinted in scenes that included a conversation between Emma and Harriet regarding the role of the neighborhood’s wealthiest landowner, George Knightley. Greater emphasis was also placed on Jane Fairfax’s possible future as a governess. The movie included moments featuring tenant farmer Robert Martin’s barely concealed resentment toward Emma’s interference in his courtship of Harriet. And the movie concluded with a harvest ball sequence that allowed Mr. Knightley to display his role as Highbury’s wealthiest and most benevolent landowner.

I cannot deny that I enjoyed “EMMA”. Davies’ script and Lawrence’s direction captured a good deal of the mood from Austen’s novel. The movie also featured scenes that I found particularly appealing – scenes that included Mrs. Cole’s party, where Mr. Knightley becomes aware of Emma’s friendship with Frank Churchill; the comic reaction to Emma’s drawing of Harriet; and the Box Hill incident. Yet, for some reason, my favorite sequence turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Weston’s Christmas party. One, production designer Don Taylor created a strong holiday atmosphere that seemed distinctly of another era. And two, the sequence featured some of the movie’s funniest moments – John Knightley’s rants about attending a party in bad weather and Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal to Emma.

Of the actors and actresses featured in the cast, I must admit that at least five performances impressed me. Mr. Elton must be one of the novel’s more exceptional characters. I have yet to come across a screen portrayal of Mr. Elton that did not impress me. And Dominic Rowan’s deliciously smarmy take on the role certainly impressed me. I also enjoyed Bernard Hepton’s rather funny portrayal of Emma’s finicky father, Mr. Woodhouse. The man possessed timing that a comic would envy. Samantha Bond gave a warm and deliciously sly portrayal of Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston. But my two favorite performances came from Raymond Coulthard and Olivia Williams as Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. From my reading of Austen’s novel and viewing of other screen adaptations, I got the feeling that these two characters were not easy to portray. Frank Churchill never struck me as the typical Austen rogue/villain. Yes, he could be cruel, selfish and deceitful. And yet, he seemed to be the only Austen rogue who seemed to possess the slightest capability of genuine love. Actor Raymond Coulthard has struck me as the only actor who has managed to capture the strange and complex nature of Frank Churchill with more accuracy and less mannerisms than any other actor in the role, so far. And Olivia Williams struck me as the only actress that managed to portray Jane Fairfax’s travails without resorting to extreme mannerisms . . . or by simply being there.

Many have praised Samantha Morton’s performance as Emma’s young companion, Harriet Smith. And I believe that she deserved the praise. I found nothing defective about it. Unfortunately, Davies’ script left the actress with hardly anything to work with. Morton’s Harriet almost came off as self-assured and nearly flawless. Mind you, I do not blame Morton’s performance. I blame Davies’ script. His interpretation of Harriet almost seemed . . . uninteresting to me. Prunella Scales gave a solid performance as the garrulous spinster and aunt of Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates. But I must admit that I found nothing particularly memorable about her portrayal. And Lucy Robinson’s Mrs. Augusta Elton never really impressed me. In fact, I found her performance to be the least memorable one in the entire movie.

How do I describe Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong’s portrayals of the two lead characters – Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley? Superficially, their performances seemed solid. Both knew their lines. And neither gave any wooden performances. But if I must honest, Beckinsale and Strong turned out to be my least favorite screen versions of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Beckinsale’s Emma not only struck me as chilly at times, but downright bitchy. I suspect that her performance in “COLD COMFORT FARM” may have attracted the attention of this film’s producers. What they failed to realize was that Beckinsale’s role in that particular film had acted as straight man to the rest of the comic characters. And back in the mid 1990s, the actress lacked the comic skills to portray Emma Woodhouse, a character that proved to be one of the funnier ones in this predominately humorous tale. I have been a fan of Mark Strong for several years. But after seeing “EMMA”, I would never count George Knightley as one of his better roles. I have seen Strong utilize humor in other movies. But his sense of humor seemed to be missing in “EMMA”. Strong’s George Knightley struck me as a humorless and self-righteous prig, with an intensity that seemed scary at times. The best thing I could say about Beckinsale and Strong was that the pair had decent screen chemistry.

Andrew Davies did a solid job of adapting Austen’s novel. Was he completely faithful to it? Obviously not. But I am not particularly concerned about whether he was or not. But . . . I did have one major problem with the script. I believe that Davies’ treatment of class distinctions in Regency England struck me as very heavy-handed. This lack of subtlety seemed very obvious in scenes that included Robert Martin’s silent expressions of resentment toward Emma, her little speech to Harriet about Mr. Knightley’s role as a landowner, Emma’s overtly chilly attitude toward Robert Martin and in the movie’s last sequence, the harvest ball. Which literally made me cringe with discomfort during Mr. Knightley’s speech. No one felt more relieved than I, when it finally ended.

In the end, “EMMA” seemed like a decent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Some of its qualities included first-rate performances from the likes of Raymond Coulthard and Olivia Williams. And there were certain sequences that I enjoyed – like the Westons’ Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball. But I found Davies’ take on class distinctions in the movie about as subtle as a rampaging elephant. And I was not that impressed by Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the lead roles. In the end, this “EMMA” proved to be my least favorite adaptation of the 1815 novel.