Up to now I had slightly mixed feelings about this version of Emma. But something has clicked and I’m finding myself loving it. I don’t in all honesty know whether it is that the adaptation has improved or that my mood has mellowed – or that I’m now rereading the novel alongside my viewing and noticing the similarities and changes. But, in any case, I’m enjoying it a lot, and just wishing the viewing figures were better. The landscapes, costumes and music all add up to a seductive mixture, and I’m increasingly appreciating how the actors interpret Austen’s characters.
The definite highlight of this episode is the ball scene, which I think has been created perfectly – I’ve watched the sequence with Emma (Romola Garai) and Mr Knightley dancing several times (while making screencaps for this posting!) and never failed to be enchanted. I now think that Jonny Lee Miller deliberately played Mr Knightley as rather stuffy at the start of the series, so that it would come as more of a revelation when he started to show his real sensitivity later on. In this scene, the glimpses of him standing at the side watching as Emma dances with Frank are the more poignant because it is all so understated – Miller does so much with the slightly wistful expression in his eyes at moments like this, making you know that his character is feeling every year of his age.
Of course, Harriet (Louise Dylan) is on the sidelines too, watching with a far more obviously wistful expression, especially after being snubbed by Mr Elton (Blake Ritson). It is a lovely moment when Mr Knightley steps forward and asks her to dance, and even more so when Emma tells him she will dance “with you, if you will ask me”. After her obvious delight at dancing with Frank, her dance with Mr Knightley is much quieter and somehow more delicate – there’s a change in body language. Again everything is understated, with a feeling that if you blink you might miss a little half-glance between them. I almost feel as if we are shown the couple falling in love within the space of that brief dance.
The comic highlight of this episode, of course, is the arrival of the dreadful Mrs Elton. Just as Blake Ritson has been criticised for being too handsome to play Elton, Christina Cole could easily be seen as being too pretty to play his wife – but, again, there is really no reason why good looks shouldn’t go along with unbearable smugness!
I think Cole enjoys bringing out the ghastliness of the character, the way she is so keen to patronise everybody and play power games. I liked the scene where Emma walks furiously through the gardens voicing her opinions of Mrs Elton very forthrightly to herself – sometimes scenes where people are rude to one another can feel too modern in this version, but I’m sure people have always been forthright when talking to themselves.
After not getting very much screen time in episode two, Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans) and Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) both made a stronger impression in this episode. The element of flirtation between Frank and Emma is played up at times during the episode, and had me wondering again how we are supposed to take all this – is Frank purely creating a distraction from his real love for Jane, or is he fickle in his feelings and really attracted to Emma? I’ve just been rereading this section of the novel and my impression is that Austen leaves the question open. In any case, in the series there does seem to be an attraction there and Frank clearly has difficulty in tearing himself away.
Jane seems rather more delicate and nervous in this adaptation than in others that I’ve seen, and is constantly overshadowed by Emma – which I suppose is probably intentional, but I find myself regretting that she doesn’t get more scope. A lot of the time she can only express emotion in a secret smile over a letter – or in a brief expression of delight at the news that there is to be a ball. I enjoyed the scene where she stands up to Mrs Elton and spiritedly refuses to let her mail be collected. Making her seem so shy and retiring probably adds to the power of a scene like this, because you can feel how difficult it is for her to speak up for herself at all – but I do wish at times that we could see a little more of the real character behind the mask. I haven’t read all that much about Laura Pyper, so thought I would include a link to one interview I did find in the Belfast Newsletter, where she talks about making the series.
I’m looking forward now to the last episode – and to watching the whole series again once it has finished!