REVIEW of Emma (BBC Film, 2009)

EmmaEmma Woodhouse is perfectly content to live in Highbury, managing the house for her hypochondriacal father. As the foremost lady of village society, she has no need to marry to be a person of consequence. But where others are concerned, she enjoys a bit of matchmaking, and after she predicts that her governess Miss Taylor will become Mrs. Weston, she is quite certain that she has a talent for it. Despite the warnings of family friend, Mr. Knightley, she decides to work her magic for a new protege, naive and impressionable Harriet Smith. But after a series of misunderstandings and romantic disasters, it turns out that Emma’s predictions of the heart have more propensity for error than she would have ever thought possible….

The BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma is absolutely delightful in every way. Romola Garai makes a convincing and captivating lead character, her expressive countenance able to capture all the energy, whimsy, and mirth necessary to being Miss Woodhouse. While I have always been a Jeremy Northam devotee and enjoyed the 1996 film starring Northam as Mr. Knightley, I am astonished to admit that the Knightley in this BBC version is…superior!

Part of the charm of this 2009 miniseries is that there are four whole episodes to develop the comfortable and familial relationship between Mr. Knightley and Emma (whereas the 1996 version suffers under tight time constraints) but I must also admit with much surprise that actor Jonny Lee Miller has Mr. Knightley’s character down to a tee. His easy familiarity with Emma, his good-natured hectoring, and his blossoming realization that she is now a desirable young woman all unfold with perfect pacing. The age difference between the two is convincing–Emma truly does act like a sprightly young woman of one and twenty; Mr. Knightley truly does behave as a settled landowner sixteen years her elder–but the nascent attraction between the two is still undeniable and the realized romance completely satisfying.

The length of the miniseries also leads to much more development of Frank Churchill’s character and to his imbroglio with Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley’s jealousy of the liberties Frank takes with Emma is far more fleshed out, as is the extent of his supposed regard for Jane Fairfax. Jane is typically no more than a cipher in most versions of Emma, a reserved foil to Emma’s open nature, but here she becomes a sympathetic character with her own story simmering in the background. Other secondary characters such as the querulous Mr. Woodhouse, the pretentious mushroom Mr. Elton, and the verbally incontinent Miss Bates, also shine in their roles. Lovely cinematography and a charming musical score complete the effect, making this my newly favorite film version of Jane Austen’s masterpiece.

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