Saturday 21 February 2015

Emma – BBC Version, 2009

DVD Cover: Emma 2009, starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller
Although everybody seems to love this version of ‘Emma’ I have held off watching it because of Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Mr Knightley in this version. I am a big admirer of his work, but to me he is Edmund Bertram, who he played in ‘Mansfield Park’ in the 1999 version. That Mansfield Park wasn’t the best version I’ve seen but, in my opinion, Jonny Lee Miller completely nailed the role. However, being currently chair-bound, it seemed like fate that I should catch up with my DVD ‘To Be Watched’ list.

I watched this with my husband, who is not familiar with the book, and felt that the beginning of this adaptation would be a little bewildering to somebody who doesn’t know the background, as we rattle through the dearth of parents that Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill and Emma have. This way of showing it though, directly comparing the three characters, who all faced losses at such a young age, really underlined how lucky Emma was for the time. Of the three, she is the only one who stays in the same home. She is doted upon and loved unconditionally. Soon we see Emma as a grown adult and start to appreciate the restricted life she has to live, day after day, with no holidays, no visits outside her very small circle of acquaintances and no likelihood of it ever changing, not that she yearns for anything different.

Emma 2009 - Romola Garai
I thought this was a very soft portrayal of Emma – it’s quite a sympathetic view, and you don’t get the full blast of her self-importance and just how much everybody around her (with the exception of Mr Knightley) inflates her ego and her idea of her infallibility. Here, Emma, played by Romola Garai, is quite funny, and though her flaws are clear, she is still very loveable, rather than Austen’s character ‘whom no-one but myself will much like’. Personally, I always quite liked Emma, as at heart she meant well, and when you consider she’d been brought up being told everything she said and did was perfect, it’s no wonder that she believed it. I wonder if, had she married differently, the book Emma may have ended up being somewhat like ‘Pride & Prejudice’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh? The Emma in this adaptation was probably never in danger of that.

I am always interested to see what is made of Jane Fairfax and here I was a little disappointed, as she is not prominent, which is a shame, as I find her an interesting character. Frank Churchill is not sympathetically portrayed at all – usually I am pretty ambivalent towards him, but here I joined Mr Knightley in disliking him heartily!

Emma 2009 - Michael Gambon as Mr Woodhouse
My favourite character in this adaptation was definitely Mr Woodhouse. He is a good character in the book, being affectionately portrayed as a slightly ridiculous old fusspot. I loved Michael Gambon’s performance. It was very humorous; he had some great lines which he delivered wonderfully.

Jonny Lee Miller - Bertram or Knightley
Bertram or Knightley?!
As for Mr Knightley – well, he’s a likeable fellow and he and Emma have a lovely rapport on screen. Although the characters have a 16 year age gap you don’t really feel it. This may partly be because the age gap between the actors is less but to me there was another, more major reason. I liked Jonny Lee Miller’s Knightley, I really did, but to me, he wasn’t quite Mr Knightley. He was missing something, the air of authority, the sense that he’s a man who has been master of his surroundings for years, the essence of Knightley wasn’t there for me.

Emma 1996 - Mark Strong as Mr Knightley
Mark Strong from the 1996 mini series of Emma
It probably doesn’t help that the 1996 mini-series of ‘Emma’, starring Kate Beckinsale, also starred Mark Strong, and when I first read ‘Emma’, probably a couple of years before that version was made, I imagined Mr Knightley pretty much exactly like him. He just has more of an air of self-confidence and experience that I think Mr Knightley would exude.

This version of Emma is really beautiful to watch, the costumes are gorgeous and the locations are a feast for the eyes. The house chosen for Hartfield, for example, couldn’t have been more perfect, and it is lovely to think that they were able to use the same building for the interior and exterior filming, at least in Emma's home. This adaptation is a bit more of a ‘comfortable’ watch than other versions, having less cringeworthy scenes than there could be, and some people may prefer the Mr Knightley character to be toned down, especially if they aren’t a fan of age gaps. For me, although the Knightley wasn’t quite Knightley enough, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the humour, the chemistry, the costumes and settings. I’d certainly recommend it, and I’d really enjoy watching it again. 4½ stars from me.

4.5 star watch


  1. I'm glad I have an ally for Mark Strong as Mr Knightley, we seem to be a rare breed! Great review Ceri, thanks!

    1. Thank you, Hazel! When I watched the 1996 version I couldn't believe how close Mark Strong was to the Mr Knightley that I'd imagined. I am lucky in that I read all the books in the 1990s, pre-1995, so I was able to form my own picture of people without having an image put there for me by the casting of an adaptation, as I hadn't seen the earlier adaptations either.

  2. How fun to read this today. I was just thinking about Mark Strong. (I saw him in The Imitation Game last night and it was good to see him play a likable character again when he's played several villains lately. ) And I agree he was a wonderful Mr.Knightley.

    1. Hi Julie, thanks for your comment. Mark Strong seems to play a bad guy far more than a good guy, doesn't he? I like his voiceover work too. He narrated the genealogy programme 'Who Do You Think You Are' for years here until the latest series and I missed his lovely tones when I watched it!

  3. Hi Ceri! How are you?
    I'm sorry you don't like this "Emma" very much, it is my favourite adaptation of the book (I didn't like at all the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow); every time I watch it, I find that Romola Garai is perfect for this role, and the first time I watched this mini-series I (and my sister) fell in love with Jonny Lee Miller.
    But I agree with you about Frank Churchill and Mr Woodhouse. What about the mini-series with Kate Beckinsale, I watched it only once, but I think that the actors are more similar to what probably Jane Austen had in mind, while the cast of "Emma" 2009 meets the taste of a part of modern public better.

    1. Hi Carmen! I liked this version very much, but the only reason that the 90s mini-series just edges it for me (aside from Mr Knightley) is that I think the older series is more true to the book. I agree with you regarding the 2009 version being more palatable to the modern public, tweaks like the character of Emma being softer so she's easier to love than book Emma :)

      I don't mind the 1996 Gwyneth film either, though I like it the least of the Emma adaptations I've seen so far. I think Emma translates really well to the screen.

  4. I love this adaption so much , but I do see your points too - e.g. the age gap, or non-age-gap between Emma and Mr.Knightley.
    It´s in a way a very smooth adaption.

    My favourite scene is when Mrs, Elton tries to claim the invitations for the strawberry picking party and Knightley goes " There´s but one woman..." and she goes "Mrs. Weston, I suppose" with a sour face. Looooove her face in this apation when he says "No, Mrs. Knightley!" :D :D So perfect. This I could watch over and over again!

    1. That's exactly what it is Katrin, I think they smoothed over some of the more objectionable parts. I really enjoyed watching it though. My favourite was pretty much any scene featuring Mr Woodhouse, the part where he's stopping the children from eating the Westons' wedding cake and then later he is defending against the rumour that Mr Perry's children had eaten all of it, just little touches like that were really amusing.

  5. Count me as a member of the Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley fan club, Hazel and Ceri! I thought he really nailed the part. Since then, he's gone on to become one of Hollywood's Obligatory British Villains to great effect, so it's good to see him in a sympathetic role. When he admonishes Emma after the picnic for her treatment of Miss Bates, you can really see his pent-up fury. 1995 version is definitely my favourite of the three versions I've seen.

    I didn't like Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, as to me, she was obviously "acting". Kate Beckinsale was good in the role and I think she just edges it for me over Romola Garai.

    1. Wasn't Mark Strong perfect in the role Anji?! I thought he had a bit more to his portrayal than JLM, much as I love him. I think he needed a bit more weight and authority which I think Mark Strong had.

      I had real trouble when I wrote this blog post, trying to define what comprises the elusive 'K-factor' and I couldn't put it into words, but Jeremy Northam's Mr Knightley didn't have enough of the K-factor either.


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