“He would know me but there’s no reason I would know a farmer”
Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma, I can’t really believe that I will ever see one as well done as this 2009 BBC adaptation by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon. Everything about it works for me, from the clever casting choices to the subtle redefinition of some characters, the (now) luxurious running time to the production values which mark it as something of a dying breed in terms of BBC period dramas.
I love its inventive prologue contrasting the early lives of Emma, Frank and Jane, how tragedy touched them all but their positions in life meant their journeys took wildly different paths. Romola Garai makes an immensely appealing heroine, her beautiful wide eyes so open and honest yet quickly able to take on a harder glint as her more self-obsessed side takes over, and she works so brilliantly with her cast-mates to give us full-fleshed, believable relationships.
There’s genuine affection with Michael Gambon’s fretful father, a tangible sisterly bond with Jodhi May’s former governess, a vivid friendship with Louise Dylan’s hapless Harriet and that real sense of antipathy that comes from two beautiful girls not quite able to make each other out with the arrival of Laura Pyper’s mysterious Jane Fairfax. And there’s Jonny Lee Miller’s excellent Mr Knightley, a hugely handsomely dashing figure who shares immense chemistry with Garai.
For me though, the masterstroke comes with Tamsin Greig’s Miss Bates, cast a little younger than perhaps is usual, this merely heightens the tragi- side of this most tragicomic of characters, emphasising the cruelty of a family situation that she cannot escape and that has robbed her of her life, so much of which is still left to live. Greig suggests much of the woman that might have been, rather than going for straight-up batty comedy, which means the Box Hill episode hits with an especially killer blow.
Production values look spiffing, locations are beautiful, but it really is the cast that make this version so special. Christina Cole’s younger-than-usual Mrs Elton is another example of astute casting, she could well have been the ‘Emma’ of her own village which adds an interesting spike to their dynamic, Blake Ritson is a strong Mr Elton and Rupert Evans nails the raffish devil-may-care charm of Frank Churchill who thrives on unpredictable danger. I could go on for days, instead I’ll just recommend you watch it!