The folks at the BBC haven't done themselves any favors. By creating some of the best literary-adaptation mini-series ever, they set a high bar for themselves and continue to raise it. So when a perfectly serviceable take on Jane Austen's Emma comes along, its exquisite craftsmanship and copious charm are almost lost in the letdown of its imperfection.
Austen's classic romance focuses on Emma Woodhouse, a proper, wealthy woman who sees herself as a keen matchmaker and an all-knowing judge of where people fall on the social hierarchy. In reality, she starts off dense, judgmental, arrogant and undeserving of the interest a story hopes to generate in its protagonist. While the time the story spends with her eventually earns some empathy, the first of the series' four hours feels a bit like being stuck at a party with people you can't stand.
The role of Emma requires delicate, precisely laid layers of emotional depth, topped with an air of superiority and propriety. Unfortunately, Romola Garai isn't always entirely up to the task, possibly due as much to the screenplay and direction as her abilities as an actress. She has an immediately welcoming, warm presence, but--especially in the first episode--fails to create either an emotional core or a particularly memorable rendition of her character's judgmental snottiness.
Fortunately, she's backed by a rather fantastic arsenal of supporting actors. Always the standout, Michael Gambon makes an endearing spoilsport out of Emma's father, a shut-in who's always too worried about people catching illnesses to let them enjoy life. Tamsin Greig pulls humor and poignancy into her portrayal of Miss Bates, a financially crippled spinster known for going on and on about the dullest of things.
The two key men in Emma's life are both expertly cast. Rupert Evans conveys boyish charm and a touch of mystery in Frank Churchill, while Dan Fredenburgh is compassionate and steady as Mr. Knightley, who has known Emma since she was a child and refuses to tolerate her ridiculous behavior.
It's lucky that the cast carries us through, because the series lacks the fast-paced urgency of BBC's superb 2005 Bleak House adaptation. Such rapid plot progression is by no means required, and one advantage of mini-series is the ability to play-out scenes thoroughly instead of rushing through character beats. The problem in Emma's case is that most of its themes feel well and truly exhausted by the time we've reached the three-hour mark.
The plot simply consists of too many scenes in which--whether you've read the source or not--it's clear that our heroine thinks someone is talking about one thing when they're really talking about something else. At the third or fourth time Emma repeats an obvious misconception, frustration begins to set in. Anyone who's read or seen a romance before can guess what's coming. No need to linger.
The series appears in an anamorphic 16x9 transfer that preserves the dimensions of its HD broadcast. The nice thing about TV DVDs is that you know you're getting the same picture and colors that the filmmakers approved for the broadcast, rather than a technician second-guessing the color-timing of an older film.
Whether you like the palette is a matter of opinion. Occasionally certain colors feel a bit over-saturated, which could be chalked up to intermediary punch-ups or simply production design, but for the most part the film has a rich, but not screaming, look with natural skin tones. The picture is crisp without any bad compression artifacts, allowing us to take in the full atmosphere of the impressive sets and costumes.
The disc comes with a 5.1 English surround track that features clear, well-balanced audio. The few lines that I had trouble deciphering were due to my ear for English accents rather than any problem in the recording. In those instances, the optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired proved useful.
Being a dialogue-heavy drama, the material doesn't provide many opportunities to flex the 5.1 channel separation outside the old fly-in-the-room standby, but the orchestral score sounds quite handsome.
While Emma''s DVD doesn't contain any must-see extras, it features three informative making-of featurettes and one highly entertaining actor interview. Also nice: All extras are anamorphic transfers with optional English subtitles.
The best feature, Emma's Mr. Woodhouse, is a very amusing interview with Michael Gambon. It doesn't delve into his character in Emma so much as recap an impressive career acting for BBC productions. Gambon speaks frankly without pretension and recalls amusing anecdotes such as his time as Lawrence Olivier's underling, how he made Judy Dench laugh during filming and the lies he and five make-up girls told about the time it took to apply his diseased character's body in The Singing Detective so they could make some extra money.
Emma's Locations and Emma's Costumes are nice studies in the details of the series' art direction and costume design. The craftspeople talk about their motivation behind the designs, and actors discuss the insight it gives them on their characters.
Emma's Music explains the process of scoring the film, from conception and rough sketches to recording. It's a fairly routine extra of its type, showcasing some nice music and the philosophy of composer Samuel Sim, but does set itself apart from the norm with rarer touches. One such touch is actual documentary footage of early meetings discussing what the filmmakers and composer want to accomplish with the cues, followed by the resulting score
(On a side note, if anyone can offer an explanation as to why the letter "L" is capitalized inappropriately in the middle and end of words and names in the extra features' title cards, I'd love to hear it. Otherwise, I'll assume it's a typography malfunction.)
If you aren't already a fan of these high-drama, "Masterpiece Theater" adaptations, this isn't the one to convert you. Fans of Austen's and the BBC will find plenty to like, even if it doesn't quite live up to the Beeb's high standards.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.