I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t sure what I felt about this BBC mini-series, scripted by Sandy Welch. But now, after seeing all four episodes, I am well and truly won over – and looking forward to watching the whole thing again. I’d just like to know whether the region 2 DVD will have any special features, such as a commentary, behind-the-scenes film etc – Amazon doesn’t give any information on this, but does say it is all on one DVD, which makes me fear that perhaps there won’t be room for any extras.
Something I have enjoyed as the series developed is seeing the contrast in acting styles between Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley. Garai’s face and voice are always very expressive, vividly putting across what she is feeling or thinking at any given moment. By contrast, through most of the series there has been something deliberately understated and buttoned up about Miller – his body language and expressions are much quieter than Garai’s, and you often have to watch closely to see a fleeting glimpse of emotion before it is hidden again.
That contrast of styles perhaps reaches its climax in this final episode, in the trip to Box Hill – where Emma, encouraged by an increasingly reckless Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans) puts on a flirtatious, colourful show of enjoying herself in the sunshine – while Mr Knightley watches silently, with just a slight frown or bitten lip showing his disapproval. Watching this scene, it struck me how the people doing all the talking, Frank and Emma, are making a parade of fake emotions – while Mr Knightley and Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) say almost nothing and try to hide what they are really feeling. This whole scene seems very well done to me in this production, helped by the clearly glorious sunshine – unfortunately not so much in evidence in the previous outing to Donwell, which is supposed to take place on an equally hot day.
Emma’s rude comment to Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig) at Box Hill seems just right to me in this version – the way she says it almost before she has realised, and doesn’t at first fully recognise what she has done, continuing to laugh and joke in the next minute or so. Mr Knightley’s upbraiding of her afterwards is powerful, feeling rawer than their arguments earlier about Harriet. If the dance scene in the previous episode showed one side of their falling in love, then this bitter short argument shows the other side – how much they both care what the other one thinks.
I was slightly disappointed that we don’t see more of Miss Bates’ reaction to the cutting words from Emma – after a brief comment she disappears for a walk with the Eltons, who seem a bit too subdued in this episode, if still spiteful. It’s also a shame that we never really have a long enough speech from Miss Bates, in any of the four episodes, to get the full comic and yet poignant flavour of the character as Austen created her – Greig gives a fine performance in the part, but I wish Welch had let her rattle on for a little longer occasionally!
I also think that Jane Fairfax is kept in the background too much in this version, perhaps because of lack of time in just four episodes rather than the six which some older Austen adaptations had. This episode does give her a chance to step out of the shadows more and give a feeling of what the character is suffering, with the powerful short scene at Donwell where she tells Emma of her “weariness in spirit” before setting off to walk home in the heat – but most of the time she is kept rather shadowy and at a distance.
Since rereading Emma to compare with the production, I’ve realised that the scenes and conversations are much closer to the novel than I realised at first, except for the updating of the language. In this episode, one gesture kept the same as in the book is Mr Knightley’s farewell to Emma before leaving for London, where he seems as if he is going to kiss her hand after hearing that she has been to visit Miss Bates – but then doesn’t raise the hand to his lips after all, just holds it for a minute. This is a good contrast with an earlier scene where Frank flamboyantly kissed Emma’s hand in order to torment the watching Jane.
For me, though, the best part of this episode is the proposal scene, which sticks fairly close to the wording in the book, and at last lets Mr Knightley really show his emotions, letting his mask slip. Both Garai and Miller play this beautifully. It seems as if Mr Knightley has become less certain of himself all through the series, after being apparently too hectoring and overbearing in the first episode – almost as if he has become younger, while Emma has become older. I liked the physical gesture where Mr Knightley asks Emma what she thinks about his proposal, and her answer is to put a hand on each side of his face – he visibly stops holding his breath and relaxes at her touch.
At times I think this production might spell things out a bit too much, and that happens again in this episode where Mr Woodhouse (Michael Gambon) talks to Emma about his anxiety that something will happen if members of his family take risks such as travelling. Welch’s conception of his character, as nervous rather than tyrannical, has already been made clear and I don’t think this extra explanation is really necessary – but this scene does give Michael Gambon a chance to give the character a little more depth.
Instead of showing us Emma and Mr Knightley’s wedding at the end, this version shows the couple setting off on honeymoon (with John and Isabella temporarily installed to protect Mr Woodhouse and his chickens!) I loved the revelation that the couple are going to the seaside, after all the mentions earlier of Emma never having seen the sea – and the final glimpse of the couple standing hand in hand at the top of Beachy Head.