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Looking Back At EMMA (2009)

Tony feels the redemption.
Emma, by Jane Austen, is one of “those” books.

One of those books that educationalists, in their infinite idiocy, occasionally force onto school curricula, meaning there are people who will forever associate Emma Woodhouse and her matchmaking efforts with the smell of classrooms, appalling hormone surges, heat through windows and contemplating stabbing themselves in the hand with a ballpoint pen just to make it end.

Quick confession – I’m one of those people. I’ve hated Emma almost as long as I’ve been alive.

So, this bodes well.

There have, in recent years, been quite a bushel of Emmas sweeping across film and TV screens. Most of them have done precisely nothing to move the needle of my Emma-hatred. But the 2009 four-part BBC version, starring Romola Garai as the interfering, bored busybody of Highbury is brand, spanking new to my experience – not because I missed it when it was broadcast, but because – well, did you miss the part where I’m not a fan?

So, the question is whether the 2009 version can convert a lifelong Emma-hater.

Wellll, not quite. But it gets closer than any other version to date, which includes the original novel – so that’s got to be good… right?

Let’s go back to basics. The story of Emma is the story of a small town snob who believes she has a talent for ‘people.’ In particular, she believes she understands who would be happy married to whom.

Like a Shakespeare tragedy where the lead character’s fatal flaw is chronic stupidity, she’s led to her self-belief by some initial success. Emma (Garai) and Isabella (Poppy Miller) Woodhouse live with their father (Michael Gambon), and are lifelong friends with the Knightley brothers, George (Johnny Lee Miller) and John (Dan Fredenburgh), who live at Donwell Abbey.

Emma and George Knightley have the sort of spiky brother/sister relationship on which modern friends-to-lovers novels and movies depend, and when Emma predicts that Isabella and John will be married, George scoffs, telling her that just because she wishes a thing to be so, doesn’t mean she’s right.

Annoyingly then, John and Isabella are married shortly afterwards, and Emma gloats. Next, she sets her eye on matching off her governess, Miss Anne Taylor (Jodhi May in a performance that gives the character much more life than usual) to eligible local DILF, Mr Weston (Robert Bathurst, always a script helper, really bringing out the sunny disposition of the character). When they likewise make it to the church, Emma’s smug mode takes over her personality and she convinces herself she’s the matchmaking queen, her instincts infallible.

Unfortunately, what she doesn’t take into account is that with her sister and her governess happily married off, she’s stuck in her home with just her fun-averse father, and that she’s matchmade herself into a social corner.

So far, so good. This is when Austen goes complication-character crazy. Mr Weston had a child with his first wife, and when she died, the child, Frank (Rupert Evans), was taken to live with his aunt, given his mother’s maiden name of Churchill, and forbidden ever to visit Mr Weston. For…spite, mostly.

At around the same time, a girl named Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) lost both her parents (there appears to have been a story-convenient epidemic of Parental Death Syndrome in the relatively recent past in Highbury). Her aunt, Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig), and grandmother Mrs Bates send the child away from Highbury to live with the ever-unseen Campbells, who could raise her in a genteel fashion – a thing beyond the reduced circumstances of the Bateses.

So, in a vaguely Shakespearean fashion, we start with two mysterious children raised away from town, but almost destined to make a reappearance at some point.

Then there’s Mr Elton (Blake Ritson), the suave, handsome local vicar, who’s also an eligible bachelor.

But in the short-term, Emma’s bored and in need of a project. There’s a young woman at a local school who…apparently either has no parents, or has invisible parents, because no-one knows who they are, but her school fees are always paid promptly.

Enter Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan). Socially inferior to Emma in every way according to everyone, including Emma herself, but a suitable project for the rich girl’s matchmaking brain.

George Knightley disapproves. Naturally he does, it being a rule in Austen’s novels that the charming, easygoing men of the world are either saints good enough for sisters or thoroughgoing cads, and that heroines are really attracted to frowny disapproving types.

Now, anyone with an ounce of ACTUAL understanding of human relationships, given this amount of information, will be able to predict the outcomes of Emma in about two minutes.

Naturally then, what follows is a series of bad matches and misunderstandings, all of them Emma’s – or made by people under Emma’s influence.

Harriet Smith likes a perfectly good farmer by the name of Robert Martin. Emma introduces her to a ‘higher’ society, and so advises her to turn down his inevitable proposal on the grounds that she can do ‘better’ than to follow her heart.

She directs Harriet to throw her attentions at Mr Elton, and convinces her that he’s interested – only to discover a little late that his inclinations lie very much elsewhere.

When both Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill return to Highbury, Jane meets with Emma’s disapproval as being incredibly reserved and not very talkative – a fault more than compensated for by her ever-twittering aunt, the tiresome but otherwise harmless Miss Bates. Tamsin Greig infuses Miss Bates with such a grindingly well-meaning energy when it comes to recounting Jane’s days, thoughts, accomplishments and perils that at least for once, you can be forgiven for taking Emma’s side in finding her exhausting.

Frank, on the other hand, meets with Emma’s distinct approval, to the point where she feels he loves her – and, flattered by the attention of someone she regards well, persuades herself that she’s in love with him, too.

But when he doesn’t seem to follow through on their flirtatious attraction, Emma lets the idea of loving him fall with consummate ease, instead supporting Harriet in what she imagines is the girl’s intent to tip her bonnet at the handsome, dashing, immensely fun probable-scoundrel.

Can you guess what comes next?

We almost don’t want to spoil it for you, so we won’t tell you any more than that it’s not Mr Churchill at whom young Harriet is aiming – a fact which causes a whole other round of confusion and heartbreak for the girl, who really would be within her rights never to speak to the clueless Miss Woodhouse again.

It will be no surprise to anyone who’s seen or read any version of Pride and Prejudice that Emma, having been so busy with everyone else’s business, has a meteoric moment of clarity late in the day, when it’s almost too late to do any good, and realises that she loves the spiky, scolding George Knightley – really, Jane Austen is the 19th century emotional equivalent of EL James, she likes to pair her heroines off with seemingly miserable rich gits(!).

And all ends well for all the couples – both those correctly paired off by Emma, and those paired off more naturally by their own inclination. Even Harriet finds love and acceptance, albeit by coming full circle to a man prepared to love her despite her being led astray by the follies of Emma, the domestic egotist.

Here’s the thing. All of this more or less applies to any version of Emma at which you care to point a stick. The plot, or at least the resolutions, are ridiculously easy to spot the moment all the players are in place, and the central character absolutely is a self-revolving monstrous egotist – at least at the start.

But the 2009 Romola Garai version of the story gets a few things crucially much more right than many other adaptations have done.

First of all, rather than letting you discover the stories of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax naturally, not to say meanderingly, as is traditional, the screenwriting by Sandy Welch and direction by Jim O’Hanlon make bold initial choices, giving you the stories of the three children with dead parents – Emma, Frank, and Jane – right up front, so they pre-exist in a state of positively Shakespearean shared fate before any of them grows into their destiny.

Second, as you’ll have noticed from the name-dropping, this is a cast that focuses on top-notch dramatic reputations and studs them all throughout the cast. Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse makes much more of his role than is ever usually done, making Emma’s situation at home into something with which you can justly sympathise. Tamsin Greig’s performance is a joy, meaning her Miss Bates is the kind of person you’d rather saw your own hand off than spend the afternoon with. Blake Ritson’s Mr Elton stops short of, say, David Bamber’s Mr Collins in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice, but nevertheless Ritson succeeds in making him a snob, a coxcomb and a ridiculous lover. If you were to imagine Rupert Evans’ Frank Churchill were about to ‘pull a Wickham,’ you’d be entirely justified, because his suave and laughing exterior proves, under strain, to be a front for a self-regarding, spoiled, impatient man with quite a temper.

And in very great particular, Johnny Lee Miller makes more fundamental SENSE out of Mr George Knightley than practically any other actor ever to play the role. He fits into the period naturally and walks about as though he owns the era, bringing the scowl, but also showing enough twinkle and grin when necessary to make you WANT Emma to end up with him from a much earlier point, for instance, than you generally want Elizabeth Bennett to end up with any version of Darcy. Getting Miller in for this role was a stroke of genius, and he adds power, conviction and a genuine underlying likeability to a role often lacking in all three, because George Knightley is an easy role to overplay, at which point he looks like a sulky toddler in too-big britches.

If Romola Garai is never a name you’d immediately go to when thinking of Emma Woodhouse, she does a lot in this production to make you reconsider your first thoughts. In particular, she brings a naturalism of movement to the show, and she brings a believable lassitude to it too. You BELIEVE she’s bored, and alone, and in almost desperate need of diversion. And, most importantly of all, Romola Garai gives the most believable repentance of any Emma, anywhere. And yes, that includes the book. Yes, there are tweaks that accentuate that in the writing, and the direction intelligently highlights it. But Romola Garai convincingly sells Emma’s remorse and realisation that she’s been an idiot in almost every imaginable direction.

Why is that important? Why does that make the 2009 BBC version of Emma fundamentally better than any other version, even for this lifelong Emma-hater?

Because if you nail the repentance, if you make the audience BELIEVE that Emma’s genuinely sorry for the chaos her boredom and sense of superiority has exploded over everyone she knows, then her happy ending feels fair, feels justified. If you don’t convince the audience that Emma’s really sorry, it can leave a bad taste in the mouth, especially when it comes to the object of her experimentation, Harriet Smith. You can end up feeling that Harriet genuinely IS inferior to Miss Woodhouse, because that can be the only way you can wish the heroine well. And that’s dangerous territory.

But in the 2009 BBC version of Emma, a combination of the gentle but crucial tweaks to the writing, some intelligent direction, and Romola Garai’s heartfelt, heartbreaking sale of Emma’s contrition mean you can root for her at the end, even though her Emma is as catastrophically clueless throughout the story as Austen’s lesson demands that she be.

A concise backstory going in, a cast studded with text-enlivening talent, a Mr Knightley who’s untouchable by any pretender, and an Emma you believe is as sorry as you need her to be to make Austen’s parable of foolishness and interference genuinely work. That’s what makes the 2009 BBC version of Emma the very best there is.

Watch Emma today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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