“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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Top Five Favorite JANE AUSTEN Adaptations

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As far as I know, there have been at least twenty (20) television and movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s six published novels. There may have been more, but I am unfamiliar with them. Below is a list of my five (or seven) adaptations of Austen’s novels: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE JANE AUSTEN ADAPTATIONS

1-Pride and Prejudice 1995

1. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) – For me, this television miniseries adaptation of Austen’s 1813 novel is the crème de la crème of the Austen productions. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langston, this miniseries starred Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

 

2-Sense and Sensibility 1995

2. “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Ang Lee directed this award winning adaptation of Austen’s 1811 novel. This movie was adapted by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her efforts) and co-starred her, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

 

3-Emma 2009

3. “Emma” (2009) – Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller were delightful in this colorful television adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel. The miniseries was adapted by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon.

 

4-Persuasion 1971 4-Persuasion 1995 4-Persuasion 2007

4. “Persuasion” (1971/1995/2007) – I could not decide which adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel that I enjoyed the best. I really enjoyed all three adaptations, even though I believe all three had its flaws. Anyway; the 1971 television adaptation starred Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall, the 1995 movie starred Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, and the 2007 television movie starred Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones.

 

5-Emma 1972

5. “Emma” (1972) – Another adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel made my list. This time, it is the 1972 miniseries that starred Doran Godwin and John Carson. Adapted by Denis Costanduros and directed by John Glenister, this miniseries is my second favorite of the Austen adaptations that aired during the 1970s and 80s.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

Below is my review of the 2004 BBC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel:

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

If someone had told me years ago that I would find myself watching the 2004 BBC television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, let alone purchase a DVD copy of the miniseries, I would have dismissed that person’s notion as inconceivable. I have never shown any previous interest in “NORTH AND SOUTH”. And I am still baffled at how I suddenly became interested in it.

Mind you, I have been aware of the 2004 miniseries for the past several years. This was due to my interest in the three miniseries based upon John Jakes’ literary trilogy about two families during the years before, during and after the American Civil War. Every time I tried to find photographs or websites about Jakes’ trilogy, I would end up encountering material on the BBC miniseries. It took me at least three to four years to express any real interest in “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But in the end, I found it difficult to ignore the mid-Victorian setting (a period I have always been interested in) and decided to include the miniseries on my Netflix rental list.

But when Netflix decided to offer the opportunity to view “NORTH AND SOUTH” via the computer, I watched the first fifteen minutes of Episode One . . . and became intrigued. Then I accessed at least two scenes from the miniseries on YOU TUBE – namely John Thornton’s marriage proposal to Margaret Hale and Nicholas Higgins’ castigation of Boucher for ruining the strike via violence and became hooked. I had to see the entire miniseries as soon as possible. So what did I do? Instead of moving “NORTH AND SOUTH” to the top of my Netflix list, I purchased a DVD copy of the miniseries. Just like that. Yes, I know I could have easily done the former. But for some reason, I found myself longing to own the DVD. And you know what? I am very glad that I made the purchase.

The miniseries is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the cultural clash between England’s pastoral South and the industrial North in the 1850s. It told the story of Margaret, a well-to-do young woman from southern England who is forced to move to the North after her clergyman father became a church dissenter and decided to leave the clergy. With the help of a family friend named Mr. Bell, the Hales managed to find a home in the city of Milton (a stand-in for Manchester). However, they end up struggling to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family that owns a cotton mill called Marlborough Mills. The story explored the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to John Thornton.

Many have compared “NORTH AND SOUTH” to the 1995 miniseries “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Personally, I only saw scant resemblance between the two stories. Both featured a romance between a plucky, yet genteel heroine and a brooding hero. But the personalities of Margaret Hale and John Thornton seemed a far cry from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also, “NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed more than just a costumed romantic story filled with misunderstandings. As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is a social drama about class and gender differences. It is also an exploration of the rise of the Industrial Age and its effects upon people, Great Britain’s economy and the environment. Most importantly, the story is a cultural clash between the pastoral South represented by Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s industrial North.

The miniseries’ exploration of the cotton textile industry led me to ponder a few things about the story’s background. A conversation between Thornton and some of his fellow mill owners led to a mention of the cotton they have purchased from cotton planters in the American South. Although their conversation only touched upon the different locations where cotton is grown, the subject would end up having an impact upon England’s cotton textile industry following the outbreak of the American Civil War. I also noticed that mill workers like Nicholas Higgins and his daughters Bessie and Mary refer to their bosses as”Master” – the same term African-American slaves use for their owners. I can only speculate on that astounding coincidence.

I have never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Perhaps I will, one day. But I understand there had been a few changes in this adaptation. One, the miniseries depicted Margaret’s initial meeting with Thornton at a time when he was beating one of his employees for smoking on the Marlborough Mills premises. Naturally, Margaret viewed Thornton’s actions as cruel and barbaric – typical of men in that region. Screenwriter Sandy Welch had created the scene for the miniseries, believing it would better serve as an opening salvo for Margaret’s dislike of Thornton and her prejudices against the North in a more dramatic manner. Although some fans have complained against this artistic license, I have not. Especially since Welch’s screenplay explained that the worker’s smoking could have endangered the employees with a devastating fire. I also feel that this scene visually worked better than Gaskell’s literary introduction of the two main characters.

Another major change in the miniseries featured Margaret and Thornton’s final reconciliation at a railway station between London and Milton. The scene featured Margaret offering financial aid to Thornton for the defunct Marlborough Mills and a romantic kiss between the two. Many have pointed out the lack of discretion of such a kiss in Victorian Britain and they are probably right. But I must admit that I found it damn romantic – probably more so than Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation in most of the“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” adaptations I have seen.

Production designer Simon Elliot did a first-rate job in recapturing Great Britain in the early 1850s. I especially applaud his decision to use parts of Edinburgh as a stand-in for Milton. This was a wise decision, considering that the Scottish metropolis managed to retain many of its buildings from the Victorian industrial era. Elliot ended up receiving a much deserved British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. Not only did Peter Greenhalgh’s photography also captured the period’s mood, but also used different tints of color to distinguish the three main settings in the story – Helstone in Southern England, the Northern industrial town of Milton and London. Mike O’Neill’s costumes suited the period, the personalities of each major character and their circumstances throughout the story. In fact, the miniseries even touched upon the differences between Fanny Thornton’s wide crinoline skirts and the Hale women’s more subdued ones – pinpointing the financial differences between the three female characters and their families. And what can I say about Martin Phipps’ score? Not only was it beautiful, but also haunting enough to be memorable.

The only problems I had with “NORTH AND SOUTH” centered on its pacing in late Episode 3 and in Episode 4. I think the miniseries could have benefitted from a fifth episode. There seemed to be too many deaths and other incidents during this period of the story for two episodes. I suppose one could blame Gaskell or also her editor – author Charles Dickens – for rushing her toward the end. Too much occurred during these last two episodes – the deaths, Thornton’s friendship with Higgins, Frederick Hale’s reunion with his family, Margaret’s legal problems, Fanny Thornton’s marriage, Thornton’s financial crisis and Margaret’s reunion with her family members in the South and Henry Lennox. I do believe that a fifth episode could have suffice. Also, Welch introduced two characters to the story – a banker named Latimer and his daughter Ann. I believe Ann was used or to be used as Margaret’s rival for Thornton’s romantic interest. Only the so-called rivalry never really went anywhere.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” was really blessed with a first-rate cast – both leading and supporting. Try as I might, I could not find a performance I would consider to be out-of-step. Neither Tim Piggot-Smith or Lesley Manville had received much notice for their portrayal of Margaret’s parents – Richard and Maria Hale. It seemed a shame, considering I found myself very impressed by their performances. Both did an excellent job in conveying how dysfunctional and emotionally repressed the Hale household tended to be. This was especially made apparent in an emotionally charged scene in which Maria Hale expressed her dislike of Milton and lack of understanding toward her husband’s decision to give up the clergy. Brian Protheroe portrayed Mr. Hale’s closest friend and Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell. I have not seen Protheroe since he portrayed Maryam D’Abo’s love interest in the 1990 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, “NOT A PENNY MORE, NOT A PENNY LESS”. As Mr. Bell, he was just as charming and ambiguous as he had been back in 1990. Jo Joyner gave a funny and interesting performance as Fanny Thornton, John’s shallow and capricious younger sister. There were times I wondered if Fanny’s character had a one-dimensional note about it, despite Joyner’s hilarious performance. However, the actress did manage to convey the character’s jealousy of not only Margaret, but also her older brother. I also got the feeling, thanks to some subtle moments in Joyner’s performance that Fanny did not like her mother very much. And resented the older woman.

One could never harbor doubts that Sinéad Cusack’s portrayal of Hannah Thornton might be one-dimensional. Aside from the two leads, she gave one of the best performances in the miniseries. Thanks to Cusack’s complex performance, there were times when I could not decide whether to dislike Mrs. Thornton for her hostile attitude toward Margaret, or like her for her warm and devoted relationship with John. In the end, I guess I liked her. She seemed too interesting, too well-written and well-acted by Cusack for me to dismiss her. Besides, I suspect that her attitude toward Margaret had a great deal to do with concern for her son. I found Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin’s performances as the mill workers, Nicholas and Bessie Higgins just as impressive. Costume dramas rarely focused upon working-class characters. Yet, both Coyle and Martin ably breathed life into their roles, they did an excellent of conveying the strong impact that both father and daughter had upon the lives of other main characters – especially through their friendships with Margaret and Thornton.

Before I actually saw “NORTH AND SOUTH”, I had read a great deal about the John Thornton character and actor Richard Armitage, who had portrayed him. Granted, the man possessed unusual looks, but I never gave him much thought . . . until I saw a clip of his performance in the miniseries’ marriage proposal scene. But once I saw the miniseries in its entirety, I could see why Armitage’s performance had generated a slew of fans. His John Thornton blew me away. Literally. The actor gave an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed, yet emotion cotton mill owner who found himself falling in love with this stranger from the South. As a rule, I am not particularly inclined toward overtly masculine types and I am still not. Armitage’s Thornton might have been described in that manner . . . superficially. Yet, the actor managed to transcend this cliché by infusing Thornton with a passionate, yet insecure nature. His Thornton was a man who literally wore his heart on his sleeve. Armitage’s performance is truly remarkable.

I could probably say the same about Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayal of the story’s central character, Margaret Hale. I had read an article that Denby-Ashe had auditioned for the role of Fanny Thornton. All I can say is thank goodness that producer Kate Baylett had the good sense to realize that the actress would be the right person to portray Margaret. And Denby-Ashe was magnificent. Not only did she perfectly capture the genteel and internalized aspects of Margaret’s personality, she also conveyed the character’s strong-willed and opinionated nature. And Denby-Ashe’s Margaret proved to be just as intimidating as Armitage’s Thornton. This was especially apparent in two scenes – Margaret’s demand that Thornton do something to protect his new Irish workers from the strikers and her hostile outburst toward Helstone’s new vicar after he had criticized her father’s dissention. She was magnificent in the role.

I really must applaud how producer Kate Barlett, screenwriter Sandy Welch and especially director Brian Percival did a superb job in adapting Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. In fact, I firmly believe it is one of the best programs that aired on television in the past decade. And yet . . . the only real accolade it managed to receive was a British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. And nothing else. No nominations for acting, writing or direction. Frankly, I consider this to be a travesty. Am I to believe that the bigwigs at BBC and the British media had this little respect for”NORTH AND SOUTH” or Elizabeth Gaskell? I am even beginning to suspect that the American media has little respect for it. The only airing of the miniseries was a chopped up version that aired on BBC America, instead of PBS or the A&E Channel. How sad that certain people do not know a really good thing when they see it.