The first of the five films is probably the best all around, the 1996 ITV version of Jane Austen's Emma, featuring Kate Beckinsale as Emma, Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley, Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, Raymond Coulthard as Frank Churchill, and Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax. Miss Emma Woodhouse delights in her perceived skill at matchmaking while denying any interest in romance of her own, but things go awry when she tries to advise her newest friend, Harriet Smith, on who to marry. While scrambling to pick up some of the wreckage caused by her mistake, she herself is suddenly presented with a number of potential suitors, including the dashing and mysterious Frank Churchill, recently returned from adventures all over the world.
The charm of this adaptation lies in the casting, particularly Beckinsale as Emma. Years of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters have turned her overall image into that of a cool-headed action star, but here her eyes dance with a scandalous joy as she assesses each romantic candidate for Harriet, or enjoys another emotionally exhilarating conversation with Frank. Even if Austen's story weren't naturally engaging, Beckinsale's performance is magnetic enough to carry the viewer along, and as such the writing is just the icing on the cake. Similarly, Mark Strong has been pigeonholed into the villain role in the last five years, so it's fun to see him playing a dashing, charming man who is the only one to offer some oversight on Emma's activities. The scenes when he chides her for her behavior are brutal, with both Strong and Beckinsale rising to the occasion, but the scenes where they get along crackle with chemistry. Diarmuid Lawrence's direction is not flashy, but the film appears to have the biggest budget of the adaptations, and always appears lush and vivid.
The second film in the set, The Lady's Not For Burning, is the opposite of Emma in style but roughly equivalent in quality. A soldier named Thomas Mendip (Kenneth Branagh) appears at the home of the Mayor, demanding to see him, insisting that he ought to be hanged for the murder of a rag and bone merchant. Shortly thereafter, a woman, Jennet Jourdemayne (Cherie Lunghi) shows up and hides in the same house: a violent mob is out to burn her as a witch for reportedly turning a man into a dog. The Mayor (Bernard Hepton), despite the disposition of his two potential criminals, refuses to hang Mendip but insistently schedules Jourdemayne to be burned at the stake the next day, even after it turns out that the man she is meant to have transformed is the same merchant Mendip says he murdered. While this is occurring, the Mayor's nephews Humphrey and Nicholas (Tom Mannion and Shaun Scott) bicker over the hand of Alizon Eliot (Susannah Harker), while she herself yearns for the affection of copying clerk Richard (Timothy Watson).
Whereas the joy of Emma is in its performances, and to a lesser extent, its gorgeous visuals, Lady is shot as if it were still a play, in single rooms with very long, unbroken takes, and although the acting is excellent, the real wit is all clearly from the original play, which author Christopher Fry adapted for television himself. Branagh, of course, is a great actor and clearly takes great joy in playing such a comically bitter character, but the surprise is Lunghi, who I am far less familiar with (she still works consistently in television). She matches Branagh barb for barb, sinking her teeth into the play's material with as much relish as he does. The play is a contrast in their philosophies, one despairing and one more hopeful, with the comedy of the local criminal justice system and romantic entanglements as a fun backdrop. Like Lunghi, The Lady's Not For Burning is material I was unfamiliar with, but this appears to be a very fine adaptation of the work, executed with energy by talented performers who allow the snap of Fry's writing to take center stage.
The third film, ITV's 1997 adaptation of Jane Eyre, starts the set's downward slide very slightly. Samantha Morton is Jane, the young and timid governess whose memories of an unhappy childhood hold her back from the love of a handsome but abrasive gentleman, Mr. Rochester (Ciaran Hinds). She starts her employment at Thornfield Hall, teaching Adele (Timia Berthome), ward of Mr. Rochester, and there she catches his eye, first when she startles his horse and he falls into an icy river, then on numerous occasions afterward, including an incident in which someone sets fire to his bedroom. Eventually, they begin to spend more time together, simply talking, and before long, Mr. Rochester proposes. Happily ever after, however, will not be simple.
It's a shame that this Jane Eyre doesn't quite work, because there's nothing wrong with most of it. The production is handsomely mounted and the film effectively hits most of its dramatic beats. Unfortunately, the one misstep lies at the heart of the story, in the casting of Ciaran Hinds as Mr. Rochester. Edward is meant to be "somewhat unpleasant," someone who "asks by way of command," but the parts of his performance that fit that early description never disappear or wane as the film progresses. Even in the final scene, Hinds comes off as somewhat aggressive and angry. Worse still, he lacks any chemistry with Morton. Jane's love for Mr. Rochester can be felt, through each one of Morton's fragile but deeply felt smiles, but Hinds never returns the same energy. It's unfortunate that the scenes of Jane contemplating her future while with St. John and Diane Rivers (Rupert Penry-Jones and Elizabeth Garfie) are almost more romantic than ones she actually shares with Edward.
The Death of a Heart (altering the book's title from "the" to "a") is the weakest film in the set, a drama about a young woman named Portia (JoJo Cole) who is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas (Nigel Havers), and falls in love with a friend of her sister-in-law, Anna (Patricia Hodge). I haven't read the book, but the film struck me as wildly confusing, presumably due to information edited out during the adaptation process. Although Portia's coming-of-age drama provides an occasional life preserver to cling to, the interpersonal relationships are strangely impenetrable for me, despite rewinding the film multiple times and looking up the plot of the book. During the times when I could follow what was meant to be happening, the performances were engaging, and the film has maybe more style than any of the films in the set (a bizarre intercutting of Portia having a nightmare with the brushing of teeth stands out), but ultimately, the movie defeated me.
Thankfully, the set does not end on a bum note, as the final film is above average, if still not nearly as charming as Emma. The Woman in White is a bit of a tonal departure from the other four films included here, with a more intense or ominous atmosphere in line with a thriller. Marian Fairlie (Tara Fitzgerald) and Laura Fairlie (Justine Waddell) are half-sisters. Their disposition and attitudes are very different, but they are nonetheless inseparable. Their father (Ian Richardson) hires a young man, William Hartright (Andrew Lincoln), to teach them about art, and although Laura is already engaged to be married to Sir Percival Glyde (James Wilby), she falls in love with William. William mentions he encountered a mysterious woman in white (Susan Vidler) on his way into town, one he searches for in the evening. A strange series of events involving the woman ensue that result in William being fired and both sisters whisked off to the Glyde's estate, where Marian begins to suspect some sort of conspiracy tied to the woman's identity.
The novel The Woman in White is considered one of the first mystery novels, compared to the romantic nature of the other four stories adapted in this set. For the most part, this is a pleasing departure, although during a crucial turning point in the story, the adaptation does have some "dumb thriller" contrivances, requiring Marian to make a number of assumptions and mistakes that don't read as natural for the story to continue. Before and after, however, the film is riveting, especially after, when Marian is set on the warpath, with Hartright in tow. Fitzgerald easily rises to the level of intensity and focus required of her, and she is matched by Simon Callow as Count Fosco, a friend of the Glyde family, who positions himself as the biggest threat to Marian and her desire for the truth. Callow plays the role with an aggressively pleasant charm that turns sickening the more he reveals his true motives. Lincoln is also good, but the adaptation appears to have downplayed Hartright's role in the story in favor of Marian, which arguably makes more sense given her proximity to the mystery.
The Video and Audio
The Death of the Heart and The Woman in White are both older full-frame masters, but they appear relatively unmarked by time. Colors have shifted somewhat toward green, detail is softer, and there is some print damage, but there's a nice filmlike quality to the transfers, with grain appearing robust. Only The Lady's Not For Burning truly appears analog, with tracking lines, color bleeding, and a near lack of fine detail in the murky image. All five films are presented with no-frills Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks that are adequate, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.