I’ve now seen the first episode of the eagerly-awaited new BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, slightly belatedly since I was working on Sunday evening.
I’ve actually watched it twice now – initially I was impressed by the gorgeous costumes, sunlit green landscapes and chocolate-box houses, but disappointed that there seems to be little of Austen’s own language and above all her wit. However, I liked it better the second time, which I find is how I often react to adaptations of favourite novels. Screenwriter Sandy Welch’s previous adaptations include Our Mutual Friend (1998) and Jane Eyre (2006) – I came to love both of these, but they took a time to grow on me, and I think the same might be true of her version of Emma. (The director of this version, Jim O’Hanlon, has directed many contemporary series for British TV, but I think this is his first historical drama, so I don’t recognise his style as yet. )
So far, I do like Garai as Emma – she gives the character a sort of mischievous, luminous quality, making her seem younger and more naive than I’d imagined her, but also making it believable that she can get so many people to do her bidding. I’m not so sure, yet, about Miller as Mr Knightley – he seems a little stuffy so far, and his remonstrating with Emma too often comes across as one-upmanship and nagging rather than the desire to bring out what is best in her. Though maybe that is intentional, I suppose, and he will be shown changing later.
I was reminded of the start of Jane Eyre at the beginning of this new version of Emma, where Welch daringly begins with back story, going right back to Emma’s birth and early childhood, and weaving in the early childhood of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. A male narrator’s voice describes how the “sun shone on Emma” from the first, but not so much on Jane or Frank. None of the children playing the young versions of these characters have many lines to say – there are just glimpses of their faces registering emotions.
I was taken aback at first by this beginning, which perhaps feels more like Dickens or Hardy than like Austen . But, thinking it over, it does make the background of the story clear to anyone coming to it fresh without having read the book, and it also helps to give a surprising poignancy to the character of Mr Woodhouse, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Gambon. In this version, Emma’s father is shown not just as a fusspot hypochondriac, but as a man who has lost his wife (the coffin is carried out before the opening titles) and is now nervously insistent on keeping all remaining family and friends in sight and checking on any threats to their health, however remote.
The humour of it is still there when he wants to veto a wedding cake in case it makes anyone ill, or worries over Harriet not wearing a shawl in her portrait, but his fussiness always has that extra poignant element underlying it. The relationship between Mr Woodhouse and Emma is nicely understated – she is outspoken and determined with others, but with him she has just the right note of being slightly worried and always checking that he is all right.
Similarly, the opening sequence also makes it clear from the start that there is more to Miss Bates’ constant talk about her niece Jane Fairfax than just garrulous boasting. In this version, we have actually seen the young Jane sent off to live with others, after her aunt lost her money – and we have heard Miss Bates say reassuringly to her mother: “Jane will write to us.” So that memory is there behind the endless scenes of her proudly reading out letters.
Tamsin Greig does strike me as rather young and pretty to play Miss Bates, but, looking her up at the imdb, I see she is 42, which I suppose is about the right age – so maybe it is just that I am surprised to see a Miss Bates younger than me! And she does play the character beautifully, making it clear that a lot of the chatter is a case of putting on an act for her silent, disapproving mother. I was particularly struck by a scene where she stokes up the fire and you can see her putting on a brave smile as she explains to her mother that Miss Woodhouse has no time to visit them today, but will be calling in tomorrow. “And in the meantime we have a letter from Jane to warm us.” I think Miss Bates and her mother must have influenced Gaskell in writing Cranford.
The opening scenes are also probably designed to provide some explanation for Emma’s character, with Welch perhaps thinking back to Jane Eyre, and how the older Jane relies on the self-sufficiency she had to learn as the orphan living at her aunt’s house and at Lowood. By contrast, Emma is shown as always taken care of, constantly holding the hand of her governess, Miss Taylor (Jodhi May, who also appeared with Romola Garai in Daniel Deronda).
One opening scene shows the little girl sitting beneath a table, hidden by the white tablecloth, as she watches with amusement while Miss Bates reads out yet another letter – and later on Mr Knightley recalls this when he tells Emma that Harriet and Robert are not her playthings, not dolls she can play with beneath the table.
I did feel this line was spelling things out a bit too much, perhaps, and I had that feeling in general at times – that the same points could be put across more subtly, without telling viewers what to think. For instance, arguments between Emma and Mr Knightley tend to be loud, with moments of downright rudeness, whereas in Austen’s books I think that often conflict is going on beneath smiles and polite conversation – and all the more devastating for that. Here there is less feeling of stifling etiquette hemming in the characters than there is in the novel.
As with other recent costume dramas, there are many scenes outside, most of them in good weather. In one of the early back-story scenes, Emma’s older sister, Isabella, is glimpsed jumping over hedges with her suitor, John Knightley, something which seems a bit unlikely – surely Mr Woodhouse would veto it immediately in case they broke their ankles! And there are also lovely outdoor scenes with Mr Elton (Blake Ritson, here smarmily unrecognisable as the Edmund Bertram from the 2007 Mansfield Park) and Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan). It does rain in one scene, so that Mr Weston (Robert Bathurst) can let Miss Taylor share his umbrella – but apart from that it is all sunshine so far.
I do still find myself regretting the loss of so much of Austen’s language, and with it inevitably a lot of her wit. However, not many new adaptations of classic novels do seem to keep much of the original language, so I think for that you really have to go back to earlier versions, like the fine 1970s mini-series of Emma which I hope to write about here in the future.
Wow, well I’ve got a bit carried away here – can’t promise to write this much about all the later episodes, but I will try to post something about them!