This is a difficult adaptation to talk about because I had very mixed feelings about it.
It’s another BBC adaptation, from the same person who did Sense and Sensibility (1971) but not the same person who did Persuasion (1971). That was Granada, which may explain why it seems to have had a much bigger budget.
Then again I suppose Granada went out of business so who had the last laugh really.
Actually the way the BBC is going maybe I shouldn’t ask.
Anyway the tl;dr of this post is that it’s a brilliant adaptation in which everybody is fantastically cast except for the teeny tiny fact that their Emma comes across as a body-snatching alien who wants to eat everybody’s skin.
Thanks for reading!
Okay I should probably go into more detail.
I should stress that I’m not really criticising the actress or her performance here (I appreciate “you tried to portray a classic Jane Austen heroine and came across like carnivorous B-Movie monster” might look a little bit like a criticism in a certain light). It’s just that the combination of the direction, the adaptation’s take on the character, and the actress’s slight tendency (which Americans or people not sensitive to British accents might miss) to over-enunciate in a way that constantly reminded me of Barbara Kellerman’s performance as the White Witch in the 1988 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made it really hard for me not to see this adaptation as “the one in which Emma is, like, objectively, supernaturally evil.”
And, honestly, a part of this might come down to how you think about Emma in the book. Because there is a valid reading of Emma in which she is just kind of the worst and her whole arc is slowly learning to not be the worst. Like I’m sincerely amazed someone hasn’t already done an edgy modern reboot called ‘Karen’. The thing is, though, that’s not how I personally see Emma. To me, and obviously I have no authority here, she’s the most materially secure but also most emotionally exposed of Austen’s heroines. Like her closest friend is her governess who has just left her to get married and start her own family. She has a sister but there seems to be an age gap there and, unlike many of Austen’s other sisters, they’re not even close in “well, you’re clearly awful, but I love you anyway” way. There’s literally nobody around her who is her social or intellectual equal, except Mr Knightley and he’s … honestly … slightly too old for her. I mean, obviously not by the standards of the 19th century but if those two came to dinner you’d be like “woah, there’s a dynamic here.”
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of dynamics, I veered between thinking of this production as being “the Evil Emma” and “the BDSM Emma”, for reasons I’ll get into later.
Anyway, the point is I’ve always seen Emma as … kind of vulnerable, even before her “oh shit, I’ve got everything wrong” storyline. And while something approximating a happy ending with Mr Knightley, and they probably will genuinely be good for each other, even that feels … complicated? Far more complicated than, say, Elizabeth and Darcy, or even Marianne and Colonel Brandon.
There’s a slightly bad faith internet meme about the 1990s Beauty and the Beast which points out that Belle starts the film singing about how she wants adventure in the great wide somewhere and ultimately married to a moderately attractive dude who lives a castle about half a mile down the road from the village she grew up in. But the reason it’s slightly bad faith is that Beauty and the Beast is a children’s movie from the 1990s that’s ultimately about Disney stuff like being true to yourself and the importance of having an adorable sidekick. Emma, on the other hand, is—when you get right down it—an early 19th novel written by an adult for an audience of adults who knew full well all the ways in which their lives could kind of suck. So I don’t think it’s an accident that Emma starts the book feeling trapped and stifled and alone, stuck in a tiny social sphere she’s clearly outgrown and by the end she hasn’t even moved out of her father’s house.
And, yes, her father has a really nice house but I’m not sure that makes it better.
Of course, the part of me that’s a huge fan of genre romance wants to say, “oh but love, love changes everything, hands and faces, earth and sky.” And I do see that life in Highbury, even life in your dad’s house in Highbury, with a companion who gets you and will occasionally call you on bullshit is way better than life in your dad’s house in Highbury well, without that, but Jesus Christ. And it’s not like Mr Woodhouse is a charming Disney dad. He’s genuinely a massive pain in the arse whose whole thing is that he doesn’t want Emma to do anything at all ever in case she dies. Like, it’s sort of sometimes played a little bit for laughs (in a wry, Jane Auteny sort of way) but at the end of the day Emma’s whole life being an unpaid caregiver to an elderly relative with an undiagnosed mental health disorder and she gets no choice about this whatsoever, even when she gets married.
All of which is to say, I wish this production had been a little bit more sympathetic to Emma herself. She does get a maturation arc but, firstly, it kind of happens in the gap between episodes 5 and 6 and secondly—from my perspective—it’s very much framed as “Emma sucks, the Mr Knightley tells her off for being mean to Miss Bates, and she learns to suck less.” Which is a shame because I really liked pretty much everything else about this adaptation.
For a start, Emma never wears fucking tartan.
I’m having a bit of trouble working out where to start with the rest of the cast because this is one of those adaptations that is so faithful that a lot of the time there’s almost nothing to say about its creative choices. Like, the guy playing Mr Woodhouse is great, but the best way to sum up his performance is as follows: you know the character of Mr Woodhouse in the novel Emma? Imagine that character? Him. Don’t get me wrong, he’s really good at playing that character—sort of tremulous and annoying, deep-seatedly selfish, but so fragile-seeming you feel bad for being angry at him about it—but there’s not a lot of analysis I can do here. And that holds true for most of the cast. Their Knightley? Yep, that’s Mr Knightley. The Westons? Yep, exactly like you’d expect. Miss Bates? Really good performance but yep, she’s an garrulous older woman who has diminished from her former social standing and shall diminish further. This absolutely isn’t a criticism: by the book is a perfectly valid way to do an adaptation, and on those terms this is pretty much pitch perfect.
There were, however, a couple of performances that stood out in one direction or the other. To start small, I lowkey liked the Eltons—which is to say, I thought they were interestingly obnoxious. Like, I’ve seen a tendency to make Mr Elton so slimy that you can’t understand why anyone would want to get with him or want anyone they cared about to get with him. Here, though, he’s got an edge of prick (and I think Mr Knightley has a line about how he goes silly with ladies—presumably because he has marital ambitions—but is otherwise quite personable) but, in keeping with the general theme of pitch perfectness, he’s really well cast as the guy you wouldn’t want to get with yourself, but would want to set up with you friend, who you genuinely like but whose dateability you have a slightly condescending opinion about. And Mrs Elton is sort of a perfect match for him. Which is to say she’s genuinely a catch in a lot of ways (she’s attractive, she’s well-dressed, probably actually reasonably educated) but she’s fucking awful and the actress playing her is clearly having a great time being fucking awful. Also they have a nice dynamic as a couple in that, yeah, they’re both terrible but they’re terrible in compatible ways that mean they both want the same things and genuinely seem to admire each other for wanting them.
The casting choice I was most impressed with was probably Frank Churchill. A couple of years ago I saw a production of Othello in which the guy playing Iago actually looked like a solider and, holy shit, did it make a difference. Because the thing about Iago is that he’s such an iconic villain character that producers and directors habitually cast actors who look like Alan Rickman or Terry Thomas. So he wanders on stage, radiating an aura of sleaze that you taste from the back of the Gods, and everybody goes up to him, being like “Ah, honest Iago!” And Frank Churchills—Jane Austen villains in general, in fact—are often similar. But in this production, they cast the kind of actor you’d normally cast to genuinely play a guileless, affordable good guy. He’s got a handsome, open face, when he smiles it makes him look a little bit goofy, in a way that’s charming but definitely doesn’t make you think “ah, this is a man who would have a secret engagement to a woman and then treat her like shit.” He just comes across really well and you can really see why Emma is into him. Why, in fact, Jane Fairfax might have been into him in Weymouth. He does wear breeches tight enough that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look but, hey, it was the style and Jane and Emma both clearly liked what they saw.
While Frank Churchill was the casting choice I found most impressive, the casting choice I found most enjoyable was Harriet Smith. Because she looks like this.
She is adorable. But she is that special brand of adorable where she really, really, really looks like she wants to fuck everybody she’s talking to.
And yes, this does mean that there a lot of scenes where, in the running commentary in my admittedly probably slightly idiosyncratic brain, we have Emma looking at Harriet like she wants to eat Harriet’s delicious skin, and Harriet looking at Emma like she wants Emma to do her hard, right now, on this window seat.
The weird sexual undertone of Harriet’s relationship with Emma (there’s a scene where she’s sort of demanding that Emma tell her what ribbon to put on her bonnet and clearly getting off on the powerlessness) is part of what made me sometimes think of this adaptation as “the BDSM Emma”. The other thing that made me think of it that way is that it’s sort of the only way to think about Frank and Jane’s relationship that makes it even a little bit not totally gross.
In some ways this adaptation’s Jane Fairfax is a straight-down-the-line as their Mr Woodhouse or their Miss Bates. But the actress brings a genuine quiet passion with her that occasionally simmers to the surface in scenes like the one where she insists on the right to collect her own letters or storms out of Donwell before the excursion to Box Hill that makes it just possible to read everything that goes on between her and Frank as a consensual sex game. I should say that this absolutely isn’t my reading of the original text and I don’t think it’s particularly intentional here either but she has such power bottom energy that when was telling Emma how she’s marrying Frank at the end I found myself thinking “they are going to have so much sex” instead of what I usually think, which is “fuck, no, get out while you still can or, actually, the harsh economic reality of your society is that being married to an arsehole who treats you badly genuinely is your best option.”
Anyway, bit hard to know how to rate this really because “I loved everything about this adaptation of Emma except its portrayal of Emma” is quite hard to convert to a strict numerical ranking. I think it was slightly better than the Sense and Sensibility in terms of production values and supporting cast, but I just don’t think I can rate a version of Emma where Emma is skin-eating alien higher than adaptations where none of the cast look like they want to eat any parts of anybody. On the other hand, at least there’s not a random bow and arrow scene.
Maybe seven thousand a year?