Emma (2009, Jim O’Hanlon)

Somehow this four hour adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma has rapidly delivered dialogue but never manages to work up any energy. It’s just people talking fast at one another, then lengthy “action” sequences, then more fast talking, then more dragging out. It’s especially noticeable with something like the oft-adapted Emma because there apparently isn’t a lot the half as short adaptations missed. Four hours doesn’t reveal anything new about Romola Garai’s protagonist, other than she really wants to go to the seaside but can’t.

This Emma isn’t just a four hour movie, but a four-part BBC miniseries. The four separate parts don’t have any inherent epical structures, just the scenes strung together for director Jim O’Hanlon to badly direct. He’s got a handful of shots he goes through, over and over, medium shots mostly, the same other the shoulder reaction shots, over and over, never getting a good moment of the actors’ performances. If they have any good moments, it’s never clear thanks to O’Hanlon and editor Mark Thornton. The way Thornton works is shot on person talking, cut to next person talking, no people listening. Even though Emma’s all about people talking and therefor listening to one another.

It’s really badly done.

Slight pun intended.

Also whoever told composer Samuel Sim to try to make up for O’Hanlon’s lethargic, inept direction with the music… the music tries, but it can’t compete against the technical inadequacies.

Though Sandy Welch’s teleplay doesn’t do Emma any favors. There’s a prologue tying together Garai, Laura Pyper, and Rupert Evans. All their moms died, two of their dads—Pyper and Evans—send their kids away. Michael Gambon keeps Garai and her older sister, Poppy Miller. So while Garai feels this connection with Pyper and Evans, they don’t share the same feelings at all. Possibly because Garai’s incapable of expressing her feelings, not even when she’s narrating (it does a terrible job with the narration—which only picks up after the first part; the first part has some dude narrating, presumably straight from the novel, which at least has some personality; Garai’s narration does not).

Over the four hours, Garai’s performance goes from silly—her catalog of expressions is a bunch of literal sitcom mugging, which stands out even more as neither Welch or O’Hanlon finds any of the very obvious humor in Emma—to just plain ineffective and finally, way too late, to at least effective. It’s never going to be great with O’Hanlon’s lousy composition but for the last half hour, even with Welch’s melodrama plotting, she’s effective. It’s not easy because she’s usually opposite dad Gambon, who manages to be so bored he doesn’t even look bored; he’s visually present on film. Garai and love interest Jonny Lee Miller only occasionally ever have chemistry. Jodhi May—as her former governess and closest confidant—is fine. Louise Dylan’s okay enough as Garai’s friend who she keeps trying to marry off and always just ends up getting Dylan’s heart broken. This adaptation avoids any of the hard talks because it can’t figure out how to keep Garai sympathetic after she’s so incompetent at the match-making.

Quite a few important performances are middling or worse. Tamsin Greig’s not good. Blake Ritson’s in the middling class but gets worse as it goes, more because of Welch’s plotting. Evans is bad. Pyper’s okay. Christina Cole’s pretty good. Dan Fredenburgh’s another middling performance but he’s also the only character Welch tries to give any personality in the script so he at least gets some consistent personality. Obviously the characters are supposed to be very reserved and proper but O’Hanlon directs them like they’re tabula rosa every scene and Welch doesn’t deign to figure out how to express character development in the adaptation.

Maybe if Adam Suschitzky’s photography weren’t so muddled and gray there’d be some visual personality. Probably not with O’Hanlon but it’s really muddy so an actual sun beam might do wonders. Especially since it’s a plot point. Though O’Hanlon doesn’t seem to have read the script before filming; it’d be better if he’d never thought about the scenes and then directed Emma than to have tried. Because an incomplete is better than a fail.

And nothing at four hours should be incomplete.

The miniseries format does reveal there’s plenty of possibility for a longer Emma adaptation—imagine doing long-form serialized character development instead of throwing all the big conflict into the last fifty some minutes of 240—but this one only gets to the finish thanks to Austen’s source material and the professionalism of the cast.

It’s disappointing and frustrating, but at least never boring. Again, got to be thanks to Austen.

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