The saying “The best intentions can sometimes go awry” describes perfectly the premise of Jane Austen’s Emma, a BBC Masterpiece Classic production adapted by Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre, North and South), produced by George Ormond, and directed by Jim O’Hanlon.
Emma Woodhouse, the title character of this four-part miniseries, is played with enthusiasm and exuberance by Romola Garai (Atonement, Vanity Fair). She is strong-willed and smart (in her novel, Austen describes Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich”), a child of privilege brought up to be the woman of the house in the English village of Highbury. When her mother dies giving birth to her, her father, Henry Woodhouse (played by the splendid Michael Gambon) is transformed into a melancholy hypochondriac, showing disdain for travel, cake, the seaside, and many other mundane pleasantries.
But Emma’s outlook on life is not hampered by her father’s lot. Matchmaking is what she has decided is her forte. After successfully pairing off her governess with a well-to-do suitor, she casts her eye on Harriet Smith (played by Louise Dylan, Merlin), a socially inferior woman Emma brings into her home for companionship. Emma’s motives are altruistic when she decides that the charming Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson, Mansfield Park) would be a perfect suitor for her new friend. But she doesn’t foresee the disastrous results of her meddling.
Through it all, Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller, Eli Stone, Trainspotting), the brother of Emma’s older sister’s husband, is a voice of reason, a sounding board, and a stalwart friend to this "woman of the house." They are obviously made for one another but neither is up to the task of admitting it. They drift around each other, squabbling and chattering and laughing like the lovers the audience wants so much for them to be. We grow frustrated for their lack of insight, but this is part of the story’s charm.
Interesting characters abound in this piece: Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, who were orphaned and sent away from Highbury as children, return to Emma’s life as troubled adults. Mrs. Bates is Jane’s talkative and impoverished aunt, a spinster who lives with her elderly, deaf mother. Jane is her one great joy and, it seems, her reason for living. These characters’ lives and stories intertwine to form a satisfying conclusion, proving that love does indeed conquer all.
The acting on all counts is exemplary but it is Garai and Miller who truly delight. Their on-screen chemistry is delicious and I found myself looking forward to the scenes in which they were featured.
The DVD extras are in every way a worthy addition to this set. In order to gain true insight into the series, the four features — “Emma’s Locations,” “Emma’s Costumes,” “Emma’s Music,” and “Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse: An Interview with Michael Gambon” — are essential viewing. It was fascinating to learn about the care that went into choosing the houses, clothes, and music for this project. We are taken inside the wardrobe and shown how the dresses and suits were dyed colors that would most suit each character’s personality. Emma’s lovely, sweeping theme music was written with her enthusiasm and confidence in mind.
Sir Michael Gambon’s interview is, for the most part, a short career retrospective. In 12 minutes he shares anecdotes about apprenticing with Laurence Olivier and acting in BBC productions such as The Singing Detective and Cranford. This versatile actor is erudite and charming, and it was a joy to hear him recount his experiences and accomplishments.
I thoroughly enjoyed this Masterpiece Classic adaptation of Emma. It is a production of great richness and detail, and one I highly recommend.
Emma will be released on DVD February 9, 2010.