We at Petticoat Junction have been waiting, all squirmy and excited, for the new BBC-produced Emma, premiering on PBS in less than a week. We’re working through our jealousy for our British neighbors, whose networks seem to love costume dramas to bits, while we here in the States can go for years with nary a bonnet or petticoat on any of the major channels. Le sigh.
Anyway, since this is Major Television Event, I’m reviewing other Emmas — the made-for-TV film the BBC did in 1996 and the feature film that came out the same year. Three adaptations in fifteen years (four if you count Clueless) might sound like overkill, but it’s great fun to compare the different treatments of the source material. And, duh — we blog about costume dramas. This is our thing.
The 1996 Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the heroine and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley, is one of those comfort movies I’ve returned to over and over again. Light and airy in tone and feel, featuring gorgeous scenery and costumes, this Emma is a pleasure from start to finish.
Key to this film’s success is the chemistry between Paltrow and Northam. It just feels right. Mr. Knightley is supposed to be about 20 years older than Emma, and Northam makes a particularly handsome, attractive fortysomething struggling with feelings for his twentysomething friend. (Somehow it’s not creepy. He’s that cute.) Their playful banter drives the movie and makes them seem more like true friends and equals. In the book and the 1996 BBC film, there seemed to be a greater distance between Emma and Knightley. She seems more foolish and selfish, and Mr. Knightley more her teacher or guide. In this version the teacher-student angle of their relationship is still there, but they’re good friends more than anything else. It’s clear they’re perfect for each other, but the fun is seeing how they realize it.
The fine comedic performances from the supporting cast are another reason why this movie’s a treat. I’m thinking Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates, talking a mile a minute about nothing and boring everyone, and Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton, the shallow clergyman at the center of Emma’s matchmaking schemes. Juliet Stevenson as the passive-aggressive, self-important Mrs. Elton is a hoot, even when it goes a bit over the top at the end and they have her speaking directly to the camera about the “shocking lack of satin” at a wedding. The director has the habit of interupting off character’s sentences with an abrupt cut to the next scene where they finish them. It’s a good way to compress a novel into a movie, I suppose, but more importantly it makes for a zippy, sprightly paced film.
Finally, there’s the “look” of the movie; overall it’s a fresh, perhaps more modern, aesthetic.
The set decoration in particular shows an artistic attention to detail and interior design. If you read Martha Stewart Living, you’ll probably love this film. Mrs. Weston’s garden with flower trellises and goldfish in bowls on stands, her deep red-hued room with ornamental bird cages, and Emma’s greenhouse with cute little pots of seedlings on blue wooden stands — everything is arranged just-so, composed like a still life painting. Meanwhile the outdoor scenery makes you want to take a summer vacation to the British coutryside so you can traipse through meadows and wander along wooded paths. Emma’s and Mr. Knightley’s kiss under a magnificent, sprawling oak tree, and the strawberry-picking excursion up Box Hill are truly beautiful natural scenes.
Emma is costumed in a range of soft pastels and beautiful lacey whites. Some dresses that stick out include the deep pink she wears to target practice with Mr. Knightley, a simple, saturated aquamarine-colored dress worn towards the end, and the cheerful white-and-yellow gown and bonnet she wears when her carriage gets stuck.
Now, is this 100% historically accurate costuming and set design? Perhaps not, but it’s altogether fun to look at and delightful, in my humble opinion. Really, that’s about as accurate a descriptor for this movie as it gets — Emma may not be a particularly dramatic film, and her problems certainly aren’t serious or even truly problematic, but the movie is still a pleasing delight.