Thursday, July 28, 2011

So Many Emmas, So Little Time -- Adaptations from 1972, 1996, 1996 and 2009

There is a wealth of Emmas out there. I've seen them all before (the 1972 version with Doran Godwin, the 1996 feature film with Gwyneth Paltrow, the 1996 television adaptation with Kate Beckinsale, and the 2009 version with Romola Garai) but never all in a row.  I thought this might make a good project for our 16 day road trip recently but I never even got started.

The other night was a good one to pop some dvds into the laptop, so I dug in -- and have since learned a number of things, most importantly: this is not a task for the faint of heart! We're talking four versions, totaling about 12 hours of Emma. I also learned that it probably would have been best to work my way forward from the 1972 version on, so to not be prejudiced by the stunning production values of the most recent, but mundane considerations prevailed and I had to start with the 2009 version, because it needed to go back to the library.  In any case, after arduous hours of viewing, here they are, in the order I watched them, . . . the Emmas!

Emma (2009, 4 hours) Romola Garai & Jonny Lee Miller
This one stars the gorgeous actress Romola Garai, who was actually 27 or so as Emma, making her the oldest of these Emmas, but funnily enough, she comes across as the youngest.

I think this might be because her take on the character includes a lot of scowling and eye rolling and other more modern/juvenile behaviors. She allows her feelings to show on her face in a very non-Regency attitude and is just a slight disappointment. I want Emma to have more dignity and elegance.  And, this is probably unfair, but she is almost too sexy. . . I mean, I want Emma to be really lovely and really refined. Romola just screams sex appeal instead - which is not exactly the same thing. Still I liked her, and I liked her in combination with Harriet, and in combination with her father, and with Mr. Elton, and most importantly, with Mr. Knightley. And by the end of the movie I really came around to her (or did she come around to the character?).

However, Jonny Lee Miller is another story. He is amazing amd gets awarded the crown as my perfect Mr. Knightley. He is the embodiment of Knightley. He is attractive, strong, and charming but slightly distant. He looks old enough, in control enough, kind enough. He has just that touch of the harried, primary land owner running everything, about him. Although he is very attractive, he looks like a real man and definitely comes across as a grown up. Which is definitely a sexy thing for Mr. Knightley to be.

As a couple, these two may just be my favorite as well. They have a very nice chemistry. You see just the right amounts of friendship, attraction, clashing and familial care-taking from them. Together they get it just right.

There are so many things to value in this production, it is hard to name them all. The cast is uniformly wonderful, but a special shout out to Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse who is simply outstanding. In fact, this is the role that made me like him. I hated him as Dumbledore. I never felt that he understood that role, doing too much shouting and giving off intensity, rather than the cool light intellectualism Dumbledore needed. So I had to work past that. But it was very easy to work past in the first minutes of seeing him as Mr. Woodhouse. He is simply brilliant - funny, sad, sweet, poignant.

Tamsin Greig as Miss Bates is another one whose acting is just stunning.  She is wonderful, also adds comedy, sadness and sweetness just as Mr Woodhouse does. Louise Dylan as Harriet, is also perfectly cast. She has a sweet, light, empty compliance that I really like. She is pretty but doesn't outshine Emma. In fact, I think this adaptation also gets my award for the most parts that are perfectly cast.

One of my favorite things about this production is the way Mr. Knightley's brother (John Knightley) gets to be fleshed out. He, along with Mr. Palmer from Sense and Sensibility are two of my favorite unsung Jane Austen characters. They are both strange and antisocial but have deeper, better characteristics than they are usually given a chance to show. In this adaptation, Dan Fredenburgh, gets a lot to work with as John Knightley and he makes the most of this ambiguous, introverted, kind but rather biting character.

There is very little to fault in this adaptation, unless you are an Austen purist. A lot of little details have been added to the story. But, personally, I like how they layered on the theme of the three children who'd lost parents and how their stories were parallel in some ways yet their lives so different. The theme was skillfully woven throughout the show. Well done. Also, action is added that takes place before the Jane Austen book opens. Again, I not only don't mind this departure, I thought it added to the production. They knew what they were about and orchestrated the adaptation brilliantly.

The cinematography, locations, dresses, hairstyles are all stunning and very Regency appropriate as far as I can tell. In fact, I would go out on a little limb here and say this is a visually perfect production.

Emma (1996, 2 hours) Gwyneth Paltrow & Jeremy Northam
This is another really beautiful production. The locations, costumes, hairstyles, cinematography are very visually appealing.

Gwyneth has such an appropriate aristocratic beauty - her long neck, posture, and slim figure look exactly like what I picture a Regency era heiress should display. She acts this role with the elegance and decorum that Romola didn't, which should make me happy, but I think she has a different problem. She comes across as almost too aristocratic. Part of that may be her accent which slips in and out of something I associate with an east coast American haughtiness rather than Regency country refined. She is the opposite of Romola in that, at 24, Gwyneth comes across as older than her years. Gwyneth's Emma seems too grown up, too in control, and resultantly, a little too evenly matched with this very gorgeous young Mr. Knightley.
So, Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley. He is a beautiful man and extremely attractive and elegant himself. But given this, and Gwyneth's slightly "older" portrayal of Emma, I always spend this movie thinking why aren't they noticing each other sooner!? It doesn't make sense that Emma wouldn't have thought of him in that way until the end. I think of him in that way the minute he walks on screen. Especially, because he and Gwyneth have a very companionable chemistry.

I like his portrayal of Knightley, but he comes off as a little too kind and gentle. He has a very relaxed, gentleman of leisure attitude which is nice, but doesn't perfectly suit my idea of what Knightley needs to be. However,  I really love his performance, especially as his interest in Emma becomes more and more apparent.

This film is full of comedy. Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) is there for comedic effect and is great at it; though it is hard to picture him as an attractive beau of the neighborhood kind of guy; he's a bit more of the neighborhood creep. Miss Bates is one of the high points of this adaptation. She is very amusing ("pork! mother") and also heartbreaking. Sophie Thompson's version of this character makes my heart break. It is wonderful.

I don't care for this Harriet (Toni Collette) who appears so big next to Emma - I don't mean fat, just tall, well grown, broad shouldered. Nothing against that type of body (I have one myself), it just doesn't suit my idea of Harriet nor her unequal relationship with Emma to have this physical disparity.  She has a horse-ishness about her I don't like in this role. I had a similar problem with Brittany Murphy in Clueless; they just bring coarseness to the role that I don't like. I want to see total simplicity and sweetness.

This adaptation has the disadvantage of being a feature length movie which, at roughly 2 hours, makes it so hard to please Austen fans and allow things to unfold naturally. There is a lot of back story that has to be explained in character dialog, but I think the pace and dialog are well done.  The adaptation has, unfortunately cut corners on many of the supporting characters in order to focus on Emma and Knightley -- but unfortunately Emma and Knightley already seem like a foregone conclusion.

Overall this is an excellent, light, fun Emma that is very entertaining. As long as you enjoy it on superficial terms and just don't dig in too deeply.

Emma (1996, 2 hours) Kate Beckinsale & Mark Strong
I really like this screenplay! It may be the best one. And I actually had that thought before I looked it up and found that Andrew Davies was the screenwriter. He seriously is good at adapting Jane Austen.

The dialog sparkles. He picks all the best lines from the book to include and writes some of the best himself. Even though this version, at 1hr 47 minutes is the shortest of the Emmas, it gets all the most memorable Emma moments, such as Mr. Knightley's: "badly done, Emma. Badly done indeed." And, also from Mr. Knightley: "Brother & sister!? No indeed." Plus, of course the ending where Mr. Woodhouse, dismayed by the attachment of his daughter to Knightley, asks why things can't just stay the way they are, since Mr. Knightley is here with us every day? "But, we are alone at night," replies Emma, followed by a nice meaningful glance between she and Knightley. Good stuff from Davies.

Kate Beckinsale as Emma is interesting. She absolutely "gets" the age of the role just right. She is youthful, gracious and lovely. She has a lot of decorum but is still a flighty young girl too. There is a nice mix of refinements and country girl to be believable. Problem is, I'm not sure I like her Emma all that much. Because, along side all these wonderful qualities, Kate, as Emma projects a lot of dismay for everything, with her nose perpetually wrinkled. I know some people think Emma is not supposed to be a likeable character -- Jane Austen herself thought so -- but I like Emma. I know she is faulted, but she is a good, well-intentioned person who is devoted to her dottering old father, and I, like her father, am indulgent. But Kate seems to think Emma is a snooty face...

... shesh! Emma must be a really hard role to play! Come on people, I'm not an expert at this, but surely someone could get this role on all fours....

Still, I do like how Kate's Emma treats her father - she is a sweet loving deferential and caring daughter, just as in the book. Speaking of Mr. Woodhouse, this is another excellent portrayal, here from Bernard Hepton, with that sad, sweet, worried quality. A treat for me was seeing his scenes with Samantha Bond as Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston. Bond played Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park, while Hepton played her father, Thomas Bertram. Cool.

And, again, another excellent portrayal of Miss Bates, this time from Prunella Scales. Jane Fairfax here, played by Olivia Williams, is my very favorite of all the Janes! She is exactly what Jane needs to be - lovely, elegant, shy, perfect. She projects an intelligence and subtlety that allows you to read more into her face, though she is reserved. Strong is an interesting Knightly. He approaches the role with a lot of passion, showing anger and intensity but also a smoldering kind of attraction to Emma. I like him in the role, but I'm not sure I like them as a couple all that well. For one, he seems so critical and displeased with her for much of the film, its hard to get the idea that he even likes her. They don't have that relaxed easy chemistry in their friendship, that I think they need to from the beginning. By the end, they seem very much in love and I am beginning to be won over. But, alas, this is a short production, and with just 2 hours to get there, their relationship doesn't get the chance to flow a natural course, but rather, takes a jarring path.

Though not as sparkling as the two adaptations above, this one is very visually appealing as well. The colors are more muted and subtle. But the locations, costumes, hairstyles all seem excellent to me and very appropriate to the era. All in all this seems like a generally tighter cast, better screen play and truer adaptation than the other 1996 one, but not so uniformly wonderful as the most recent.

Emma (1972, 4 1/2 hours) Doran Godwin & John Carson
It seems slightly unfair to compare this one with the much more modern productions above. Still, I think (even under the high standard set by those others) this adaptation has much to recommend it. It is probably the truest to the book. It has a pacing and feel that is slow to unwind and comfortable. It is not an exciting adaptation, but at 270 minutes in length, it is nice to have time to just sink in and relax with it.

This cast is uniformly very solid. Yes, the acting style is very different, more formal and stiffer. They have perfect manners, but exaggerated expressions that seem odd to the modern viewer.  I would bet that almost all the actors in this production were skilled performers with theater background.

Too, I think the style of filming was much more like televising a play. It seems to me as if they just turned the cameras on and started filming. These performances are all the more impressive if you think about them being given on a first take. There is very little film editing, no real art shots or effects, and no score. Again, it makes you appreciate the performances more when you realize there is nothing else going on in the background to take up the slack. It may take a while to do it, but once you tune your brain to the right frequency, circa 1972, you can settle in and really enjoy this one.

First of all, John Carson as Mr. Knightley is actually quite excellent. He has just the air of a wealthy gentleman and primary landlord. He is charming, interested in everything around him, threatened by nothing. He comes across as caring but manly and very much in control. Trouble is, Carson is just too old to play this role believably at the age of 45. I find him attractive enough, but then again, as far as I'm concerned, 45 is the prime of life. the relationship between our leads in some ways is one of the best and comes closest to the one written in the book. You can really see the almost paternal interest and care Knightley gives to Emma. You can see how Emma looks up to him and cares for him, though her world is her own and she doesn't really give him that much thought. This is the only one of these four productions that allows our leads to have a large enough age difference where you can really see that these characters are supposed to be at two different stages of life.

The actress playing Emma, Doran Godwin, is another slight disappointment. She is generally quite good, but seems to be channeling Scarlett O'Hara. Though actually quite pretty, her looks are not well suited to the high lace collars and pin curls on her fringed bangs, nor those hideous matron caps they put her and Harriet in. When she wears the more low-cut empire style gowns she looks significantly better and has a Gwyneth Paltrow kind of regality without appearing to look down her nose at everything. Overall, aspects of her performance are very good. I like her youth, coupled with dignity and gentility. She can be better appreciated if you imagine her being on a stage. She exaggerates her facial movements in a way that doesn't suit today's enormous screens and very high resolutions, but I try to forgive this.

The production values here are nothing like the modern adaptations, but its unfair to expect that of them. The sets are pretty and colorful. And it is a wonderful breath of fresh air when they do a little bit of shooting outdoors. I don't think they get the Regency era women's costumes correct at all, but the men's are good and a few of them actually quite gorgeous. And the gowns worn at the Cole's party are lovely.  Even where the cut of the gowns seem off, the fabrics look rich and luxurious. I bet this was a pretty snazzy production for the era. The closing credits make a point of letting us know this was a "BBC Color" production, reminding me that color was still just coming to TV in our homes at this time.

It took me a couple of episodes to get into this one (after seeing those flashy other ones), but once I did, I found I enjoyed it just as much. Truly, the acting throughout from the supporting players is wonderful, with very few exceptions. Don't watch it unless you are prepared to take it on its own terms and give it some time, but be ready to enjoy it if you are!

"So Many Emmas, So Little Time. Emma from 1972, 1996, 1996 and 2009" LostinBritishTV

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