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Movie Review - Emma - from Masterpiece Theater (2009)

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This British BBC Made-for-TV version of “Emma,” adapted from the novel by Jane Austen which was published in 1815, is the fourth time that this popular story has been filmed.  It is four hours long, on two discs, which allows time to show the character development which makes this version highly acceptable.


Romolo Garai

                                                   Romolo Garai - Wikimedia Commons


The title character, Emma Woodhouse (portrayed by Romola Garai), is a young adult who lives with her father Henry (Michael Gambon) in the town of Highbury, England on their estate called Hartfield.  Emma’s mother passed away when Emma was an infant, and she has been under the care of her governess Anne Taylor (Jodhi May) since that time.  Emma’s older sister Isabella is married and has five children, and lives in London.

Emma’s life was relatively carefree and she considered herself a matchmaker since she introduced her governess, Anne Taylor, to Mr. Weston (Robert Bathurst), a widower with a young son, Frank.  The boy was adopted by Mr. Weston’s sister-in-law, who changed his name to Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans).  Mr. Weston and Anne were married, necessitating the departure of Miss Taylor from Hartfield.  She continued to be Emma’s friend and advisor, as well as a frequent visitor.

George Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller) is a neighbor of the Woodhouse family and has known Emma for her whole life.  He is a 37-year-old wealthy bachelor, a gentleman sixteen years older than Emma, who serves as a sort of mentor to Emma, reminding her frequently when she oversteps the bounds of courtesy or impropriety, risking her disapproval.


Emma and Mr. Knightley

                                                   Emma and Mr. Knightley - Wikimedia

Emma the Matchmaker

Emma’s newest friend, Harriet Smith, has confided to Emma that she has just received a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a farmer.  Emma persuaded Harriet that she is much too good for Martin and should set her sights higher.  Harriet, although she has been educated, has a questionable background and has little hope of marrying a gentleman.  Emma has in mind, a match-up for Harriet with the new vicar of Highbury, Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson), who comes to call at the Woodhouse estate.  Emma and Harriet are pursuing their hobby of painting, and Mr. Elton suggested that Emma paint a portrait of Harriet.  He was so impressed with the outcome that he asked to purchase the portrait.  Emma believed that Mr. Elton was interested in Harriet, and encouraged her to respond to his attentions.  Mr. Elton came around frequently, and eventually proposed to Emma, who was startled at the outcome, and answered frankly that she thought Mr. Elton was pursuing Harriet.  Emma insisted that she had no interest in getting married.

Shortly thereafter, they heard the news that Mr. Elton had married.  He introduced his new wife, Augusta, to the congregation, a wealthy but vulgar and pretentious lady who liked to take over.  It appeared that Mr. Elton was, in fact, a social climber.

Miss Bates, the town busy-body is expecting her niece Jane Fairfax to arrive for a long visit.  She had been sent away to live with the Campbell family who oversaw her education.  Emma was made to feel inferior because Miss Bates was always raving about her niece Jane’s abilities and virtues.  Someone had sent a piano anonymously to Jane at Miss Bates’ house, as she was an accomplished pianist.


Jonny Lee Miller

                                                        Jonny Lee Miller - Wikimedia

Frank Churchill Comes to Town

Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans) informed his father, Mr. Weston, that he would be coming to visit.  He was so solicitous of his aunt’s welfare that his leisure time was quite limited.  Emma had been curious about the absent son and looked forward to meeting him.  On his way, Frank encountered Harriet who had been accosted by some gypsies and had fainted.  Harriet was quite taken with Frank.  He and Emma decided to plan a ball together to amuse all of the young people in the area.  Emma wondered if she might be in love with Frank, but decided soon that she was not.  At the ball, Harriet is ignored by both Mr. Elton and Frank, and George Knightley stepped in to ask Harriet to dance, although he had told Emma that he did not like dancing.  Emma admired George for his gallantry in that situation.

When Frank’s aunt died, Mr. Weston and his wife expected that Frank would propose to Emma now that he was free of the constant need of his aunt for his presence.

Excursion to Box Hill

George suggested a day trip to Box Hill for everyone, to experience the beauty of the outdoors and a change of scenery.  As they all lolled around at5 the top of the hill, Frank was overtly flirting with Emma, which appeared to disturb Jane Fairfax.  Emma made the mistake of insulting Miss Bates for her long-winded conversations.

Later, George berated Emma for her cruel words to Miss Bates, and also revealed that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax had been meeting on several occasions.  Emma found that hard to believe, given his behavior at Box Hill.  Emma realized that her insults to Miss Bates were inexcusable, and went to visit Miss Bates and Jane.  Jane would not see her, but she learned from Miss Bates that Jane had accepted a job as governess for a friend of Augusta Elton.  Augusta had taken Jane under her wing, which had made Jane uncomfortable.

Emma’s Plans Go Awry

Frank was surprised to learn that Jane would be leaving.  He and Jane had been secretly engaged for some time.  Emma was shocked because she had Frank in mind for Harriet.  Harriet assured her that she was not at all interested in Frank.  She said that she had set her sights much higher on a real gentleman, but was apprehensive that the match might be too unequal.  Emma was shocked to learn that Harriet was speaking of George Knightley.  She realized suddenly that she, and only she, was the one who should marry George.  She had been so busy managing everyone else’s lives, she had neglected her own happiness.

Two Marriage Proposals

George returned, and after a painful effort where he was unable to speak his true feelings, he proposed to Emma, and she accepted.

Emma was pleased to hear that Robert Martin had once again proposed marriage to Harriet and she had finally accepted.  They were the first couple to marry.


Michael Gambon
                                                                                  Michael Gambon - Wikimedia                  

Emma found it difficult to tell her father of her plan to marry George as she would have to leave his house and he would be alone.  It was hard for him to lose Anne Taylor to Mr. Weston; she knew he would be unhappy by himself.  George assured her that he would come and live with them at Hartfield, and would do even more than that to make her happy. 

The beauty of this version of “Emma” cannot be overstated.  The costumes were outstanding.  The scenery was breathtaking.  The casting was impeccable.  I plan to view the version with Gwyneth Paltrow as the lead, but I am certain it will come up short.  Romola Garai was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as “Emma.”



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