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Thursday, February 11, 2010

EMMA -- DVD review by porfle

I usually find film adaptations of Jane Austen to be light and enjoyable, and sometimes very funny. BBC's four-episode mini-series EMMA (2009) places the characters and material in a fairly realistic world in which the humor is somewhat subdued and the drama a bit more pronounced, and I find it to be a nice approach that pays off.

In the small English town of Highbury sometime in the 19th century, young Emma Woodhouse lives in a mansion with her widowed father and amuses herself by arranging romances amongst her friends. After a couple of successful pairings, however, she begins to make a series of potentially disastrous mismatches. Her new best friend, Harriett (Louise Dylan), a timid girl of questionable parentage and thus deemed an unfit wife for a gentleman, is Emma's most difficult project, and her attempt to pair the girl up with handsome young vicar Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson) is a dreadful failure.

Returning to Highbury after being raised by wealthy relatives are Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans) and Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper), who, along with Emma's childhood friend Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller), give Emma even more opportunities to wreak romantic havoc. This results in a series of miscommunications, secret affairs, and other complications in which we're never quite sure who's in love with who and how well any of it will turn out. Through it all, Emma finally realizes that not only is she quite fallible as a matchmaker, but her tireless efforts to mold the love lives of others has caused her to neglect her own.

Emma, as played by Romola Garai, isn't all charm and delight, and is in fact rather irritating at times. She often displays a girlish frivolity and self-centered disregard for the way she manipulates the romantic affairs of others as though they were her playthings (while knowing nothing about love herself), and is something of a snob as well. But that's what we expect from our Emma, isn't it? Fortunately, she learns from her mistakes and tries to make amends for her botched efforts at matchmaking, evolving into a better person while retaining her independent spirit.

Jonny Lee Miller is so relaxed and likable as upper-class nice guy Mr. Knightley that I'm almost able to forget that he once played a young Woodrow Call in DEAD MAN'S WALK. (Still finding it hard to get used to the fact that he's British.) Michael Gambon is a dear old thing as Emma's eccentric and always worrying father, and Jodhi May (THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS) is as lovely as ever as Emma's former governess and friend, Anne. The rest of the cast is equally superb, with Blake Ritson noteworthy as the ultimately repellant Mr. Elton and Christina Cole wonderfully insufferable as the woman he eventually marries. I'm particularly fond of Tamsin Greig as the well-meaning but incessantly boring Miss Bates.

The production is very handsomely mounted with ideal locations and great attention to detail regarding costumes, set design, and other period aspects. Direction and cinematography are very good.

The 2-disc DVD set from BBC Warner has a 16:9 aspect ratio and 5.1 surround sound with English subtitles. Total running time for the four episodes is approximately 229 minutes. Extras include four featurettes: "Emma's Locations", "Emma's Costumes", "Emma's Music" featuring composer Samuel Sim, and "Emma's Mr. Woodhouse", an interview with Sir Michael Gambon.

This is the kind of Victorian romantic comedy that can be quite delightful at times, and the more realistic, down-to-earth approach given this version of EMMA lends it a substance that makes it all the more rewarding. I'm no expert of Jane Austen, but I liked this adaptation very much.

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