Emma Woodhouse is, I believe, one of Jane Austen's most underrated characters. She is the heroine of the novel, yet JA was not afraid to make her severely flawed. I've always appreciated that about her character, because often the main characters in novels can be too good, to a point of them coming off as pretentious and unbelievable in their virtue.
Emma is vivacious, spirited and mostly very kind, but she has underlying prejudices and opinions about people that are revealed during the course of the story, that doesn't constantly hold her in a fair light. To me, the best characters are the ones who reveal both their good and bad sides. Because, in reality, we all take turns being the bad guy at one point or another. It's realistic and relatable, and something I've always appreciated about the narrative of this story.
When I watched the 1995 Emma adaptation a while back, while it was perfectly fine, I was rather disappointed in it. I felt that Emma's personality was not properly portrayed and that the overall film felt rather stiff.
But then I came across the 2009 BBC adaptation this summer, and OHH- I just fell in love with it immediately.
Romola Garai (Emma Woodhouse) and Jonny Lee Miller (Mr.Knightley) shone through the whole series with their immaculate performances, as well as their perfect chemistry. Mr. Knightley is one of my favorite Austen heroes, and I really enjoyed seeing more of his and Emmas relationship in this series. You really see how close they are, and the history of their friendship.
I've always said that a series is better than a movie because there is so much more room for character development, and for romance to blossom in a believable way. This series made it clear that Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley were perfect for each other, not just by saying it, but by discreetly showing it to us.
Romola Garai, in particular, sold this version of the story to me. She is such an expressive and physical actress, someone who acts using her whole body to express emotion in scenes. That's how I always pictured Emma in the book while talking, so to see Romola portray that so well on screen was a true delight.
One of my favorite scenes with Garai is when Harriet is confessing her love for Mr. Knightley. Emma's entire face and body contort from a happy countenance to one distressed and confused. You really see the internal struggle she faces in this scene, from a confession from her friend that jumpstarts her own underlying feelings for Mr. Knightley. The worst trait in an actor is when they sound rehearsed on- screen when the lines sound unnatural and like they're reading them off of cue cards. Garai never looked or sounded rehearsed through the whole film, and every expression and sentence she says sounds perfectly natural. One can clearly see how comfortable she was in her character.
A big story element that made WAY more sense to me (as opposed to the 1995 version, which mainly focused on Emma and Harriet) was the relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. We see far more of Jane's personality and struggle with the dynamic between her, Frank and Emma, unlike in the original film where I completely forgot that Jane Fairfax even existed, and had no recollection of any interaction between her and Frank. Even in reading the book, I had a difficult time keeping up with Jane and Frank and appreciated the way this series portrayed their story.
I believe most importantly though, it was the feel and aesthetic of this series that truly drew me in. I loved the soundtrack and the cheerful mood of the scenes. You can tell by the way the scenes were directed, the color scheme of the outfits and sets, and the emphasis on Highbury's countryside, that Emma Woodhouse is a very positive individual. She lives for fun and always strives to be in high spirits, despite her arguments with Knightley or the bad influence Frank Churchill had on her behavior. Emma is Jane Austen's most complex and interesting female lead, and her charm truly immerses you into the story.
This is a series that asks to be watched over and over again. It's romantic, sweet, and everything that a Jane Austen adaptation should be. If you've never seen this series, it is one that I highly recommend.
Click HERE to digitally download Emma (2009)