I’m sorry to be so late in saying anything about the second episode of the new BBC Emma, but I’ve had a frantically busy week at work and haven’t had time to string two words together! However, I have now managed to see the episode twice and, to be honest, have slightly mixed feelings about it. This will really just be a few disjointed thoughts rather than a proper review, as the time I have available is still quite short – I feel a bit like Miss Bates going over her latest letter from Jane, and will have to bring my thoughts into some sort of order at the end of the series.
I am still enjoying the series and impressed by the beauty of the scenery and the whole world which has been created. I’m also impressed by the actors’ performances – especially Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse and Jodhi May and Robert Bathurst as the Westons – yet I feel increasingly that perhaps too much of Austen’s satiric bite has been lost, that the story has been softened too much round the edges. And yes, I do still miss the language of the novel. However, while feeling slightly disappointed at the moment, I remember having doubts about previous Sandy Welch adaptations and being won over in the end – her version of Jane Eyre is one of my favourite costume dramas of recent years, for all its departures from the book – so it may well be that her Emma will grow on me just as much.
I’d been looking forward to the arrival of Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) and Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans) in this episode, but so far neither of them has made a very strong impression. This Jane certainly is reserved, hardly having spoken a word so far – though that was understandable, as Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig) gave her little opportunity! I’d like to see the character given more scope in the last two episodes, and hope/expect she will be. So far Frank has seemed charming and cheerful, but not much more than that.
Where the first episode was full of sunshine, this one had snow – very pretty snow, largely seen through windows falling softly. It struck me as being more like a Christmas card or a glass snowstorm than the real thing, with no slush or mess to clean up. However, the general alarm at the first flakes and the determination to set off home immediately is very true not only to Austen’s day, but also to the reaction when we get a hint of snow in the air in Britain nowadays! Apart from the general rush to carriages, Harriet’s streaming cold was about the only suggestion of winter being a nuisance rather than picturesque – Louise Dylan made her misery all too realistic, and you could almost see Emma (Romola Garai) take a step backwards to avoid her sneezes.
Amid the picturesque snow, I enjoyed the scene of Mr Elton’s proposal in the carriage and Emma’s angry response when she realises that she has been wrong about his intentions. Several people have commented to me that Blake Ritson is “too handsome” to play Mr Elton – and I do think it takes some getting used to to see an actor who at first sight looks like a costume drama hero (and indeed played one in the most recent Mansfield Park) cast as such a smarmy character. However, there is surely no reason why an unpleasant character shouldn’t be good-looking. I think Ritson does a good job of reciting all his supposedly lovelorn lines in hammy style (“I adore you, I shall die if you refuse me!”), while by contrast, he speaks about the things he actually cares about – like his own dignity and importance – in a more coldly matter-of-fact style.
Romola Garai made Emma’s bewilderment and indignation at the proposal very believable. It seems to me that she is playing Emma as very young (this could just be a sign of my own middle age!) and rather more emotional than I’d imagined the character – she quite often seems to be on the verge of tears, for instance when she has to break the news to Harriet of Mr Elton’s defection. She also sometimes bursts into nervous laughter, for instance at the table when she is revealing to her nieces and nephews that she has never been to the sea, in order to distract attention from her father’s fussing over the superiority of Cromer to Southend.
I was slightly puzzled by the insistence on Emma never having been to the seaside, something which has been mentioned several times but which I don’t remember from the book, and indeed a statement that she has never been to London either, with the line: “I have never travelled outside Highbury.” I may be wrong, but I don’t think this lack of travel is stated in so many words in the novel – I suppose it is again to help build the picture of Emma as still a child, someone who has always led a sheltered life in a very small world. To me this seems to be just one side of the character – in the novel she seems to have a greater assurance than Garai portrays. We are also quite often being shown Emma’s imaginings/daydreams – for instance, highly-coloured portrayals of Jane’s rescue by Mr Dixon – suggesting that she has a romantic imagination and this is a reason for her match-making. I’d always seen her more as someone who wants to be in control.
Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Mr Knightley is growing on me after a slow start. He does a lot with his eyes – I noticed a brief glimpse of jealousy when Emma was talking to Frank Churchill – and he brings a welcome note of sarcasm at times. I liked the whole way that he and Emma work together to defuse the arguments between John Knightley (Dan Fredenburgh, giving a comically grumpy performance) and Mr Woodhouse. There is starting to be a feeling of a little more chemistry between the couple.
So, all in all, I’m still not sure what I think of this adaptation – but I’m certainly finding it interesting to watch, and it has also taken me back to the book.