Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Miniseries Review - Emma

Based on the book by Jane Austen
Release Date: October 4th, 11th, 18th, and 24th, 2009
Starring: Michael Gambon, Jodhi May, Robert Bathurst, Tamsin Greig, Valerie Lilley, Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, Dan Fredenburgh, Poppy Miller, Blake Ritson, Veronica Roberts, Louise Dylan, Jefferson Hall, Laura Pyper, Rupert Evans, Liza Sadovy, and Christina Cole
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Emma Woodhouse grew up motherless, raised by a father always expecting the worst. Yet she made the best out of what she was given and dotes on her anxious father and never strays too far from home, unlike her sister who moved an unacceptable distance, less than 15 miles away to London! Therefore Emma's little community of Highbury is her entire world and they view her as their queen. Yet one might pity those in Highbury for an active imagination like Emma's trapped in a small circle of friends they have become the beneficiaries of her schemes. Even if they don't want to be her playthings. Emma thinks she excels at matchmaking, which Mr. Knightly says isn't matchmaking so much as wishful thinking that sometimes comes true, as in the case with their respective siblings and Mr. Weston and Emma's governess Miss Taylor. She will prove him wrong though with her new project, Harriet Smith. Harriet Smith is the natural daughter of who knows whom Emma plans to marry to the Reverend Elton. But Mr. Knightly is right and she doesn't really know people well and Mr. Elton has another wife in mind, Emma herself! Trying to extricate herself from this mistake and the harm it's caused to Harriet leads Emma into more mistakes. The worst might be a lack of propriety when Mr. Weston's son, Frank Churchill, finally returns to Highbury. Emma knows that he has been marked out for her. If she were the marrying sort Frank would be whom she would marry to make everyone, except her father, happy. Therefore she is more open with her feelings, more cutting with her words, all in the pursuit of a good time with Frank. But Frank has hidden motives, reasons for his being in Highbury other than paying his respects to his new mother and his old home. If only Emma would take a moment to stop and look inward versus outward she might see the world in a whole new light.

With every prior adaptation of Emma I had strong reservations, be it an oddly healthy and robust Jane Fairfax to an overly creepy Mr. Knightly, yes I'm looking at you Andrew Davies. Though in some fairness to Andrew Davies I don't think anyone could have succeeded in doing Emma any kind of just given only ninety minutes to tell the tale. Therefore when it was announced that a new miniseries of Emma was on it's way and me having just started my blog, I went a little overboard with the blog posts about the actors and the new adaptation. With four hours there was a far higher chance of them getting it right or at least keeping in everything that needs to be there in order to be moderately faithful. Four glorious episodes, four glorious hours so that they don't relegate Mr. Woodhouse to a chair and only vaguely reference him (which once you cast Michael Gambon you'd be hard pressed to do!) And while I've enjoyed it every time I've watched it, this time it just struck me harder. I adored it. Yes, it has pacing problems with the plot not clicking until Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax arrive, but that's the same problem the book has! In my initial review I was lenient on changes, because it's an adaptation so of course they're going to fiddle with it. The best adaptations aren't word perfect, look to the Harry Potter franchise for proof. But this time there were some little things, little shifts that got to me. All of them to do with Frank Churchill. My main gripe is actually one against all adaptations of Emma, why can't Frank be introduced just as Austen wrote it? Instead there must be some amusing confusion, some meet cute that is just wrong in my mind. In the Gwyneth Paltrow version Emma is driving a carriage!?! What nonsense is this? She would NEVER do this and her father would never allow it. But what I really objected to here was Frank being viewed as a resident of Highbury. No. This changes too much to be allowed. His father settled there long after Frank was off with the Churchills it was NEVER his home. This makes Emma and Frank's meeting some sort of predestination a lifetime in the making instead of just a few months. Frank doesn't deserve any more importance, he's full enough of himself already.

But anyone who's anyone has issues with Frank Churchill, it's the fatal flaw of Emma. Therefore I should console myself with what they got oh so right, and that's the inclusion of Emma's family, the extended Woodhouse clan. They are the first to go as being "extraneous" when time is considered in most Emma adaptations. But you can't really understand anyone unless you see them with their family. Their family is who forms them and whom they either surround themselves with or run away from. To omit Emma's family is to omit a true understanding of her. I can remember actually fuming in the theater watching Gwyneth Paltrow quickly showing off her slumbering father to visitors to Hartfield because that was his only real scene. No dialogue due to being unconscious! Emma's father is the central figure in her life, the figure around which everything happens and is decided! To push him to one side is unacceptable. But then again most people would be even more surprised from the aforementioned Gwyneth Paltrow version as to the importance of Emma's elder sister Isabella and her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightly's younger brother John, and all their children. Because while Emma is set apart in her community, she has love. She has a bustling family with all its pros and cons. Nephews paying extended visits and nieces to comfort her in her old age. Which makes her situation sadder. Her love has made her make sacrifices that others, especially her sister, haven't had to make. Isabella is like a mirror image Emma. That is what Emma's life could have been. And while we have the knowledge that Emma will get her happily ever after and perhaps daringly visit the seaside, when we meet her, when we get to know her she might be the queen of the castle, but it's a sad castle with a shut-in she loves dearly, but a shut-in none the less. You feel Emma's pain, Emma's loneliness amongst the bustle and familial love. This brings a little humanity to Emma by showing her as coping bravely with the loneliness of her life by being outgoing and scheming. A lonely existence no matter how little there was to distress or vex her is still lonely.

Though to bring this all across, to show the joy in the sadness, the humor in the everyday, the right actors were needed. It must be said, Gwyneth Paltrow was too haughty, too cold, and the less said about the poultry and pervy Kate Beckinsale version the better. Romola Garai though is perfection. She brings that joy that Jennifer Ehle did to Pride and Prejudice. An infectious smile that couples well with Emma's scheming and mischievous nature. As for Jonny Lee Miller? He's the perfect balance! He himself is quite goofy with his laying about in chairs, his eye rolls, his sighs. His comedic timing is perfect. The two of them form a very good double act which makes their romance believable. Because, the thing with Mr. Knightly and Emma is that if not properly cast they come across as just a convenient not a realistic couple. They just get married because Emma doesn't what her nephew to lose out on his inheritance to a child of Harriet Smith's and well, what's good for her sister is good for her, so how about a Knightly! Here you actually believe it. Yes, there's a beautiful dance and lots of swelling music to help sell it, but what's interesting is that those aren't the moments that make my heart hurt. It's when he scolds Emma about her behavior or when she is just sitting and looking at his usual chair now empty. Their being apart or fighting or just not talking physically hurts me. And while I could easily believe Romola Garai capable of this, loving her in everything from Daniel Deronda to I Capture the Castle to The Hour to The Crimson Petal and the White, the only thing Jonny Lee Miller had in his favor was Trainspotting. But the negatives were stacked against him, Plunkett and Macleane anyone? Dark Shadows? The most boring Sherlock Holmes currently around? Yes, he was passable in Dracula 2000 and that Byron movie, but the biggest negative was that he'd been an Austen hero before. Yes, our Jonny Lee Miller was Edmund Bertram in the horrid 1999 version of Mansfield Park, which is not only a bad adaptation but it is distinguished as being one of my most hated films ever. So to have this depth, this humor, this snid perfection that would give Emma perfect happiness? A delightful surprise indeed!

Then again, this adaptation was full of surprises. Mainly because it understood that the purpose is to adapt the story, make it true in feeling if not in word. While Austen purists might say "but that's not in the book." There is nothing done in this adaptation that isn't supported by the text if not directly than in supposition! Personally I hate Austen purists, and I'm sure she would have hated them too. She wrote for fun so if you have fun reading the book or watching the adaptation I'm sure Austen would be happy. As I say again and again if you question what adaption means look at the first two Harry Potter movies which are really horrid and how slavishly Chris Columbus tried to stick to the books, then look at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the mood is so perfect the film switched the franchise up a notch and made it not just viable but enjoyable, not something you just watched to pretend Harry Potter was real but you knew wasn't very good deep in your heart. Back to Austen, what struck me most in this adaptation was the visual imagery of dolls used throughout. This works so well because Emma basically treats those around her, especially Harriet Smith, as her playthings, and therefore to have doll imagery is a natural extension. This isn't something Austen would explicitly spell out but seems like something she'd love. The implications are all there, Emma's very nature makes it logical, so therefore it just makes this adaptation feel right. And it's not just Emma playing with her dolls under a table as a young girl in one of the best time lapse scenes with Miss Bates ever, it's that the dolls appear again when she's scheming about Isabella, then Mr. Elton, and then later Mr. Knightly even references them in passing. The adaptation has created a through line that is perfection. Added to this is the delightful opening credits that depict famous scenes from the book in silhouette, or, as they look to me, in paper dolls! But I wouldn't expect less from Sandy Welch who did two of my favorite miniseries ever, Jane Eyre in 2006 and North and South in 2004.

Yet this review can't all be glowing... there is a flaw. Now it's time for my rant against PBS. PBS, you treat your British shows and by extension your viewers like shit. You hack the shows up, aka "edit for time" and speed up the frame rate so that you can show more ads for cruises no one watching the show will ever go on. As a viewer you can only see the "original UK broadcast" by buying your DVDs. And it's your DVDs I want to talk about, in particular THIS DVD. How could you release such a wonderful show with such a sub-par release? The transfer is abysmal! What the fuck is with this transfer! I mean, seriously, WHAT THE FUCK! It's grainy and horrid. The first fifteen minutes was me trying to come to terms with having actually paid money for something that was barely a step above a bootleg VHS tape you'd buy of some lost Doctor Who episode or Red Dwarf special at a science fiction convention. The first disc has a constantly flickering weird green bar in the lower right corner of the screen. Plus there was some weird shift that made the right edge of the screen vibrate on both discs. I thought, well, it's not Blu Ray so now that I'm into Blu Ray I could upgrade, but guess what? There is no upgrade! This is the only version they released in this piss poor quality. I'm not joking when I say that the winter scenes looked like they were from a nature documentary from the 70s. I expected some Brit with out sized specs and corduroys to appear screen left and start talking about the mating habits of some birds or fluffy field vermin. I mean, I don't want to piss on PBS, they offer so much, but compared to how the channel used to be, with lovely long intros to these shows that were well researched and presented versus Alan Cumming just coming on at the beginning of only one episode of Wallander to complain about how dull and dark he was? I mean, yes, I agree about his bitching about Wallander, but I could at least use a little more Alan! Masterpiece No Longer Theatre isn't even repeated and where are the lovely old British comedies on late at night? All that is gone and instead we have shitty overprice DVDs and edited sped up shows. Not cool PBS. Not cool at all. So while I adore this miniseries, just stream it, don't give them money for this shitty treatment of their consumers.


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