You need to understand before you read this that since I watched the other Emma– the famous one, the one with Gwyneth Paltrow (bleurgh!*) in it- I have had a change of heart when it comes to this particular story. It’s true that I still haven’t finished the book (shame on me!), although again this probably has something to do with the unpleasant mental image of a quivery-lipped Gwyneth Paltrow that pops up in my mind whenever I try to read it. But that has all been cured, now, because of a really great Netflix series starring Romola Garai- which made me realise that actually, I LOVE this story. Just, um, hang about while I finish the book. At some point.
Is it a feminist… series? I think that, although Jane Austen did write some very strange things (see: her strange praise of the irritating Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and her scorn for the delightful Mary Crawford, just the kind of witty “bad girl” I assumed Jane Austen would love), she definitely understood what so many critics, authors and playwrights today don’t: that even situations often dismissed as “domestic” (ie, containing women who are not superheroes or vampires, but rather ‘ordinary’ people living ‘ordinary’ lives) can be very interesting. Inevitably, a series has more scope time-wise than most non-interminable films, so here many of Austen’s oft-discarded “less important” conversations are worked back into the narrative. If you don’t know the story of Emma, then here is, basically, what I thought it was before (ie, the plot of the Gwyneth Paltrow version):
A beautiful, spoilt, emotionally manipulative young woman is rude and mean to almost everyone, despite thinking that she’s doing them a good deed, not to mention almost cheating her poor friend Harriet out of her life’s happiness, before she eventually realises the error of her ways and marries some boring goody-two-shoes who no-one likes.
And now, here is the plot of THIS version.
A beautiful, spoilt, flawed but basically good-hearted young woman is a bit rude sometimes, but regrets it and doesn’t wallow in her small acts of kindness, not to mention almost cheating her poor friend Harriet out of her life’s happiness and regretting that too. Eventually, she marries some boring goody-two-shoes who
is Sherlock from Elementary no-one likes.
The main difference here is that Romola Garai plays Emma as a much more sympathetic character- one who makes some silly mistakes as a result of her privileged upbringing, but understands what she’s done wrong and pretty much always makes amends for it. I feel like little things like this can be big leaps in terms of the portrayal of ‘difficult’ women characters- ones who are truculent, and annoying, and rude, and mean, and ridiculous, and sometimes wrong, and maybe just a little bit too carefree. And the truth is, what young woman doesn’t possess at least some of those characteristics? No-one is Jane Bennet in real life, but many people are Emma, or at least partly her.
In regards to this particular adaptation- I love it. It’s beautifully filmed, never drags, and is quite funny at times. The amusingly too-long voice-over at the beginning- explaining details of the characters’ backstories which you will immediately forget- just adds to the whole experience. Where the 1996 version was held together completely by Toni Collette, Sophie Thompson and, for a short time, Juliet Stevenson, here pretty much every actor is very well cast- even, to a certain extent, Jonny Lee Miller as the boring good-guy Mr Knightley. Also Blake Ritson**- who I’ve seen before, in Mansfield Park, and hopefully you have to because it’s a lovely film and this sentence doesn’t really make sense so please just skip to the footnote already. SKIP TO THE FOOTNOTE.
So to round off this slightly all-over-the place review (not one of my best, but hey! Right now I’m saving up my reviewing power to start reviewing the
feminist classic total load of old garbage that is Wonder Woman. So you can’t blame me for it)- this is a very good series. If you have access to Netflix, and you like gentle period dramas with lots of atmospheric rain, awkward rejected proposals and pretty dresses- you should probably watch this. I watched it in an ordinary sort of fashion- spreading the four episodes out over some weekend evenings- but I feel that this is the sort of thing which would be really nice to watch propped up in bed with some hot chocolate, if you were ill with a very snuffly cold. That’s my (totally unfounded) recommendation. And it’s totally free! But if you take me up on this, you have to send me a psychic message (perhaps via some ‘sonically tuned water’) to say you did it. Otherwise my trained army of rabid pot plants will come and eat you while you are watching it, propped up in bed, with some hot chocolate and a snuffly cold.
*I’m not even going to apologise for not liking Gwyneth Paltrow- I just feel like I don’t care if someone wants to extort money from rich people by selling things which apparently contain “love”, “moondust” and “sonically tuned water”, but endorsing articles which claim things like “bras cause breast cancer” is offensive, misleading and stupid. I do not care what anyone else thinks about this but I would definitely refer you to Jennifer Gunter, who’s a pretty cool gynecologist and who has managed to get on Gwyneth Paltrow’s “bad side”- ie, if you look her up she comes up as “People’s choice for Gwyneth Paltrow’s fact checker”. As I said before, pretty cool.
**Shout-out for Blake Ritson, who here is supposed to be playing the slimy vicar Mr Elton- but doesn’t manage it because he’s just too adorable to play slimy. You know those slightly puppy-eyed young men you see a lot these days? This guy goes a step further- he’s not just puppy-eyed, he resembles an ACTUAL (and slightly emaciated) PUPPY. Don’t believe me? Look it up!