What I’m Watching Now (Emma)

Another in the series. Readers of this blog know my passion for Jane Austen’s novels and Emma in particular. (I will at some point address the alt-right’s views about her works, which are as misguided as they are about the rest of the universe).

Not long ago the Gwyneth Paltrow version offered up a great disappointment: too slick, too many modern finagles, and characters pretty much devoid of engaging qualities. Miss Bates was too young looking, ditto Mr. Knightley. Paltrow’s Emma seemed to care about her father only for appearance sake, contrary to the absolute devotion of the novel.

The 1972 BBC version, which had more time to develop the story, excels. It’s a thoroughbred vs. a plough horse. First observation: except for Frank Churchill, these people are not gloss pretty. Doran Godwin wears her hair in a tight bun throughout, which gives her a severity that echoes Emma’s rigidity in her belief of her own superiority of perception. Mr. Knightley (John Carson) looks every bit of thirty-seven, perhaps even older. Ellen Dryden as Mrs. Weston is pudgy. And Mrs. Elton’s teeth! For the longest it appeared that she had one missing, but they are merely snaggled. This casting makes for an entirely credible take on Austen’s observation that she was writing about a few families gathered in a village.

Among the best scenes is the gypsy “assault” on Harriet Smith, though the assailants look too clean for living in the woods.

The obvious deviation from the novel is the disconnection of Colonel Campbell’s family. Austen has his daughter as best friend to Jane Fairfax, Emma’s erstwhile rival. Miss Campbell marries a Mr. Dixon. In the film the Dixons have no prior connection to Jane. The omission prevents great byplay over mystery of the donor of Jane’s piano.

Otherwise this version is a feast of music, laughter, and the occasional tear.

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