I love period dramas, especially literary adaptations: it doesn’t matter how many times a literary masterpiece is adapted into TV/film, I’m always intrigued to see the director’s take on it. Emma is BBC’s latest Jane Austen drama, a four-part mini-series scripted by Sandy Welch, starring Romola Garai as Emma, the naïve but self-assured matchmaker, and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightly, Emma’s most trusted friend and her biggest critic, who ultimately holds the key to her heart.
I enjoyed watching Garai play Emma – the cheekiness, the stubbornness as well as the sensitivity was all beautifully acted; I do think, however, Welch rounded Emma off at the edges a little too much. I was expecting Knightly to be slightly more attractive and not quite as dull and two-dimensional as he appears in the drama – in fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that, to some extent, Knightly is overshadowed by the other characters whose personalities are more overpowering than his own. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Welch doesn’t give Knightly enough time on-screen to develop his character in the course of the drama. Unfortunately, this also downplays the development of the relationship between Emma and Knightly: Welch ends up using the conventional method of body language to show their changing relationship, rather than through language or incident. For example, although the ball scene with Emma and Knightly dancing is breathtakingly passionate (the choreography is beautiful), unfortunately it seems to serve as a device to convey a sudden change in the relationship between the two, rather than something that’s been slowly developing. It’s not very Austen.
Actors that did catch my eye were primarily Blake Ritson and Christina Cole, who play the roles of the ridiculous Elton couple really well – they were probably my favourite characters in the drama. I also enjoyed watching Rupert Evans as the charming, and quite dashing, Frank Churchill, but found a lot more chemistry between Emma and Frank than Emma and Knightly, or even Frank and Jane Fairfax (whose romance becomes quite limp at the end of the drama).
Welch structures the drama in a more female bildungsroman kind of way by beginning the drama at Emma’s birth rather than at the wedding of Miss. Taylor, Emma’s governess, as Austen does. It’s interesting how Welch parallels the childhoods of Emma, Frank and Jane, highlighting the social aspects of the novel. Although Welch tries to thread this through Emma, especially through the characters of Jane, Frank, Harriet and sometimes even Mrs. Weston, Emma’s snobbery and unwillingness to accept the blurring of social class borders in the novel is overlooked by Welch.This is especially true at close of the drama, in regards to Harriet and both her desire to marry Knightly and her actual marriage to Robert Martin. Welch’s rushed and rather clumsy ending means that Emma’s changed relationship with Harriet, and therefore her views on social class, are not fully explored and, for me, this makes the drama inconsistent and inconclusive. What could have been a great a drama on social commentary of marriage becomes just a tangled love story.
Despite believing this drama could have been a lot better than it was – perhaps I’ve been a little over-critical – I did actually enjoy it. The lush landscapes, the beautiful costumes and Austen’s wit and irony (perhaps a little diluted) added to the overall colour and charm of the drama. There were still a few laughs, the emotional scenes were touching and it kept my attention throughout.