Random Thoughts on the Masterpiece ‘Emma’

So, some VERY random thoughts – no time really to actually write anything, but figure this is better than nothing…[maybe…] – no pictures either… [ok, maybe one…]

First, I had the opportunity to watch this new Emma when it first came out – decided against viewing it on my computer screen, as I figured the best part of it would likely be the settings, so very glad I was patient [I am not known for my patience…] and I dutifully watched Part I last night.  It did not disappoint, either in the above-mentioned setting category, or in the expectation – long gleened from the various other reviews out there – that this was not an Emma of the early 19th century, but rather some 21st century rendition of how Austen might translate her own work to be understood by the watching masses… so here are my random thoughts:

The Past:  the whole movie starts with a rapid foray into the past to see how Emma’s mother dies [did we really need to see her in her coffin?]; how she and her sister are raised by the lovely Miss Taylor, and coddled and over-protected by their father; how little Frank Churchill is sadly sent off to live with his aunt; how John Knightley and Isabella are seen in a pre-marriage cavorting about in the garden while Emma and George [and we learn his name right at the beginning] look on; how Emma puts Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston together under an umbrella where love blooms; and FINALLY we get to the beginning of the book where the marriage has just taken place… none of this is in the book, only inferred, but its sets the story in time and place and we now know all… this is all necessary I suppose for those who have not read the book [to which I say, GO READ THE BOOK…]

The Fashions are to die for, and I like that Emma actually wears the same dress on different days, albeit with some ribbon-changing  – I especially liked the turquoise – just lovely… I liked all the clothing, even Mr. Martin had on a fine pair of pants and boots…Mr. Knightley of course looked fabulous…

The Houses, exterior and interior are absolutely superb – I have a gold damask Chippendale sofa in my living room and thus was especially pleased to see several of them scattered about.  I wanted to pause each frame and take notes.  I want to go on a tour of the actual houses – but now unfortunately I want redecorate my whole house, and this will not do [or so my husband informs me…]… Donwell Abbey was a treat to see – a tad forbidding – no wonder Mr. Knightley puts his coat on every day, opens the door, takes in a breath of fresh air, puts on his hat, and heads over to the Woodhouses.  And I liked the “Sed Semper Amico” over his inner door – seems to mean “but always for a friend” and was often on the entryways of country houses [and why does Google Translator not offer LATIN as a translation option?]

The Gardens – perfect specimens –  Mr. Ripton would be pleased – again, I want to freeze-frame them all, especially those at Hartfield – and thus need also to redo my gardens once they are uncovered of snow…

The Carriages, Horses: again, a visual feast – one thought is that Mr. Elton seems to be on his horse a lot… but rightly so, Mr. Knightley rarely uses his carriage…

The Town – it was nice to see the very real dirty streets – complete with horse pooh and working men – that said, it still seemed a bit manicured and one could almost imagine the camera men off to the side – but the pooh was a nice touch…

The Narrator: not sure why Miss Austen’s all-seeing narrator [who is obviously female] wasn’t hired for the job, but we seem to have a man’s voiceover that sounds suspiciously like Mr. Knightley, which sort of skews the content a bit [like who actually knows any of the upcoming “secrets”?]

The Language – well, this is the kicker really – now we know for sure we are in the 21st century with a group of people who just like to dress up funny – I thought for awhile that since it is so visually beautiful and as I do know the story after all, that I could just sit there for the two hours and watch – no sound…

The Music – well, I liked this – it added to the comic effect… can’t wait for the dancing part….

Production discrepancies:  there is snow all over Highbury on Christmas Eve, but all is green when Emma next visits Harriet only a few days later at Miss Goddards [I confess I need to check how much later she does this…] – there are likely more but I did not dwell on this…


 Mr. Woodhouse – Michael Gambon a delight! – though he did indeed look a tad TOO hardy, it really just added to the humor of his being so obsessed with his body – I did, however, have a few fears that he might choke on all those scarves and shawls hanging about him…

Miss Bates – too early to tell anything about her, so I await Part II to decide.  She is certainly not as silly as the Paltrow version [though I liked Sophie Thompson in this very much – she gave her Miss Bates a poignancy that rang true to Austen’s text] –  the emphasis here seems to be more pathetic than comic.  And I was appalled at the scene where she leaves Hartfield pushing her mother in a wheelchair down the road – surely even the self-absorbed Emma would not have just waved goodbye and turned into her house! – this doesn’t bode well for Box Hill…

Miss Taylor / Mrs. Weston – I love Johdi May [she is brilliant in both Daniel Deronda and The Mayor of Casterbridge], but she seems wasted here, with just a few scenes of her knowing smirks and smiles – but she has several lovely outfits… [oh, and Mr. Weston seems a fine fellow…]

Frank Churchill – Rupert Evans is great so far – but not enough to judge by yet.  I do wonder why they had to put that scene in there of his meeting Emma on the road – it adds too soon to the watcher that he is not all that he seems, and unnecessary to the tale…

The John Knightleys – they seem to be well drawn in their small roles to convey the basics of their characters, so well-done on this score [I need to look again – do they have FIVE children??]

Robert Martin – he is physically perfect for the role – so this works too…

Harriet Smith – much better than in previous Emmas – Louise Dylan’s Harriet is not such a blank slate, just very sweet and indecisive and all obliging, with way too many curls.  The scene of her portrait painting is hysterical…

Mr. Elton – with his rather odd over attachment to his horse, Blake Ritson nails the simpering, over-zealous, pompous Mr. Elton perfectly – he just slithers onto the screen! – loved the coach scene – look forward to his return to Highbury with his £20,000 wife next week [and if anyone is getting their Austen confused at this point, it is likely because we have TWO Edmund Bertrams in this Emma – Ritson and Miller both have portrayed Austen’s least-likely (or is that least-liked) hero on the screen …]

Mr. Knightley – ok, the one you have been waiting for… I still cannot let go of my wish for Richard Armitage in this role – now lost forever in screen history as who knows when the next Emma will be made [perhaps he can play Mr. Woodhouse in a few years?] – but once I got into the swing of this 21st century Emma, I see that Jonny Lee Miller passes muster in this role – more like a big affectionate brother, always correcting, the great overseer, a pleasant sort of fellow, but not the Knightley [Knightley, she calls him Knightley!] on the page, who is much more austere and mature and distant.  But since they changed the story to the extent they have, Miller works for me – will see about next week, as I hear he gets better…

Emma – drum roll please: aahh! Emma – can anyone get this right?? Austen could not have imagined a world filled with moving pictures trying desperately to put her enigmatic Emma to a visual test…can’t be done I think…. So we have Romola Garai, like Miller, playing this role exactly as the writer [not Austen] and director wanted her to be – i.e. an early 19th century woman, dressed appropriately but acting like a 21st century teenager [and Emma is NOT a teenager] – the intention stated early on that this movie is to bring in another generation of watchers [and hopefully readers] – so Emma is annoying – she is playful to be sure, but rarely acts like the lady she is, always sort of draping herself over the furniture – I had difficulty with Garai in Daniel Deronda – she kept stooping forward and turning her head in the oddest way – and here, she seems to be suffering from a nervous “tic” of some sort, with these bizarre facial expressions that would have been unseemly in a time where one kept these personal feelings to themselves, certainly not baring them openly for all to see.  But again, if I step back from the page and just accept what is on the screen, she is endearing enough I suppose…. More thoughts on her after Part II airs…

So my final grade? – oh, I am afraid I am much too easy, despite my dislike of all this Austen stuff that isn’t Austen at all, I think I just know that a film of any Austen will not work to our satisfaction [recall the brouhaha after the 2005 P&P!] – so I will just sit back and enjoy this visual feast, hone my decorating and fashion skills, and go to bed early and re-read the real thing…

 what are some of YOUR random thoughts?

[Posted by Deb]

ps – oh dear, I completely forgot Jane Fairfax! a bit of a mouse really, that’s why – more after Part II… [lovely voice though…]

ps2 – completely forgot to comment on the cinematography, which, like all the settings was first rate and really makes the film.  The scene with Emma at the window looking back at her past imagining herself and her sister playing in the hallway, juxtaposed with the scene in the window of Mr. Knightley jaunting his way down the path to visit is a beautiful frame – though this does imply her future and thus gives away the plot – but since all the secrets have been mostly let out of the bag, I suppose we can just enjoy its loveliness?

11 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on the Masterpiece ‘Emma’

  1. I’m having a tough time with Romola. Am loving Jonny Lee Miller. Think Michael Gambon is too hardy, and Blake Ritson’s Mr. Elton too odd and mannered, but I like the film overall.

    That said, where is Jane Austen’s dialog? We are watching a Sandy Welch interpretation of the novel, and she takes great liberties with the script, and I cannot reconcile myself to some of the added scenes that Jane Austen never intended. As for Frank Churchill – I am still waiting for the perfect actor to play this part.


  2. Pingback: Emma premiers TOMORROW on PBS… | .: StrangeBlog :.

  3. Yes, Vic, I heartily agree with you about the language – Austen is certainly rolling her eyes up there in the Poet’s Corner of Heaven… and yes, I like Jonny Lee Miller in this adaptation – he is however not who I see as Knightley when reading the book – So Sandy Welch has her own creation going on, and at least credits Austen with the basic storyline!

    So Frank Churchill doesn’t work in the rest of the story? too bad – I thought there was at least potential there…

    Thanks for visiting Vic – I need to add to this post all the other reviews out there – at least half the world is talking about Jane Austen, watered down though she be!


  4. Deb,
    Thanks evere so for your forthright comments on the PBS “Emma”, aired on Sunday. I, too, have been an Austen devotee since age 16. And ,though parody may have originally been lost on me at that tender age, I have since delighted in Jane Austen’s deep understanding of her characters and, especially, their social circumstances. She unravels their life events with wit and sparkle, leaving the reader both included and fulfilled. Yes,humor was implied. I especially liked your reference to 21st. century outlook, But, for me, too, the characters might be taken as oddly cliched for comic effect, not necessarily for literary authenticity. Wit and silliness in these modern productions, are often clumsily juxtaposed. Then, again, Jane, replete with natural humor, may have loved it all. And, I too, was lost in the fashion the visual grandeur…and ready to redecorate myself! I look forward to Part 2. After two hundred years of Austen’s popularity, there is a strong guarantee of new readers and interest.
    Lost in Austen-Eileen Rappaport
    Merrimack, NH


    • Hello Eileen, I posted a response to your comment on Tuesday but it seems to have gone missing! – so thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts – this Emma is an odd mix isn’t it? – and I agree that Jane would have likely loved it – certainly the fashion piece!

      I see you are in NH – are you a member of JASNA? – let me known if you would like to be on our mailing list for our Vermont events…

      And thanks again for stopping by!


  5. If these are just ‘random thoughts’, your actual review will speak volumes! What a thorough analysis, full of details! I agree with many of your observations. Thanks for the excellent write-up of this first episode.


  6. Great review!
    ‘Mr. Elton’ and ‘Harriet’ are perfectly cast, I think. Harriet is sweet and I like that when the irrepressible Mrs. E does arrive, she has golden ringlets.

    Mr. George Knightley is well-played, althought neither Mr. Miller nor Ms. Garai are as elegant as Gwyneth Paltrow or Jeremy Northam, either in appearance or manners in these roles.

    Yes, what is with ‘Emma’ and her expressions?

    Favorite shot so far: Mr. Knightley’s understandable pride of place when he opens the front door of Donwell and surveys all the beauty that is his to steward. And what a nice touch, to have the halo of “Sed Semper Amico” around his head and shoulders. Well done!


  7. Hello Toni – I heartily concur! – those curls [perfect on Mrs. E, but I get ahead of myself as that is episode II – but seem silly on Harriet] and the eye-popping Emma!. The scene of Mr. Knightley opening the doors is brilliant!
    Thank you for visiting…


  8. What else has the actor playing Mr. Weston been in? He looks so familiar. I looked on IMDB and nothing rang a bell.

    Also I had to laugh at your comment about seeing the house to get decorating ideas. Last year, after seeing the movie “Mamma Mia,” painted my living room, dining room and entry hall in what I dubbed Mamma Mia Blue. I even used vintage textiles like those in the movie, thinking I was copying Greek isle decor. My bubble was burst though, when I watched the DVD with the commentary and found out ALL the interiors were done on a sound stage in London.

    Oh well, I still like it, even if it’s not “authentic!”


    • Hi Layne – yes, Mr. Weston did look familiar and a glance at IMDB just confirms my thoughts that he has been in a ton of British TV productions and so we all must have seen him in some of them one time or another! [Cold Feet, I think being the longest run]

      Love your story about the Greek Isle decor! sound-stage or not, it was completely authentic from the artistic point of view and you should be proud of your accomplishment!

      Thanks for visiting.


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