It is a truth universally acknowledged (or ought to be), that there is no charm equal to tea, cake and daffodils. This film isn’t going to win any Oscars, but it’s so pretty. Practically every indoor scene involves either copious amounts of tea being drunk, from ever-so-elegant porcelain cups, and copious amounts of beautifully-presented cake being eaten, or else perfectly-executed country dancing. Practically every outdoor scene involves stunning shots of beautiful, open English countryside, under clear blue skies; and the springtime scenes show glorious hosts of golden daffodils dancing along peaceful river banks. Folk songs play in the background. The houses are all exquisitely decorated. The clothes are beautiful, and anyone who was upset over the lack of elaborate coiffures in Little Women will find that this more than makes up for it. You get to see Mr Knightley’s bare bottom as well, but what are bottoms to tea, cake and daffodils?
Anyway, Mr Knightley would never have wandered around with a bare bottom, even in his own home; although Frank Churchill probably did it all the time. Mr Knightley is a bit more passionate and unconventional, and a bit less stuffy, in this than he is in the book – although lying on the floor isn’t exactly in the same league as diving into the lake at Lyme Park with a white shirt on. And any unpleasant hint of his having been interested in Emma when she was 13 has been removed. However, other than that (and a rather bizarre scene involving a nosebleed), it sticks fairly closely to the book, apart from a few slight tweaks at the end. Oh, and apart from Emma pulling her skirt up to hitch up her undergarments. I have no idea why either that scene or the bare bottom scene are included, but never mind.
Frank Churchill could have been a bit more dashing, though. And, whilst I’m not generally a fan of editing historical books to bring them in line with modern sensibilities, I do rather wish that they’d taken out the reference to Harriet being set upon by gypsies and just said that she’d been set upon. But, other than that, it worked pretty well. I don’t think it’s Jane Austen’s most interesting book. There’s something vaguely unsatisfactory about the fact that beautiful, rich, Emma never even goes as far as Bath or London, and it’s also really annoying that sweet Jane Fairfax ends up with an idiot like Frank Churchill. But that’s the story, and I’m glad that the scriptwriters didn’t play about with it too much, because I don’t see the point of deciding to make a book into a film or TV series and then changing the story.
There’s always a lot of talk about the fact that we’re supposed to dislike Emma but that most people actually don’t. She’s a busybody, but she’s generally quite good-hearted – and she makes some good points about men preferring a pretty face to a well-informed mind. She’s the queen bee of her community, and anyone so young in that position would be a bit spoilt. The crucial “badly done” scene is quite well done (sorry!) – we see how genuinely hurt Miss Bates is, how embarrassed everyone else is, how Mr Knightley is the only one who points out that it was badly done … and how Emma is genuinely sorry for the offence she’s caused. It’s not my favourite Jane Austen book, but I think that that’s one of the best Jane Austen scenes.
One of the tweaks towards the end is so that Emma’s the one who persuades Robert Martin to ask Harriet again, so she gets a bit of extra redemption there. Other than that, it’s pretty much according to the book, with a few bits missed out so that it all fits in. The comic/fool characters are rather OTT, but that’s how Jane Austen writes them. Harriet comes across very well: we’re reminded that just because someone isn’t very bright doesn’t mean that they might not be a valued friend for their good nature. And, of course, we’re reminded, in the “badly done” scene, to remember that everyone has feelings, and that it’s never OK to mock or humiliate another human soul.
Emma’s thoughtless, not malicious, though. No-one in this book is really nasty. Frank Churchill’s behaviour is reprehensible, but he doesn’t treat women in the appalling way that Mr Wickham or Mr Willoughby do. Mrs Elton is annoying and vulgar, but she isn’t a schemer like Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe. Mr Woodhouse is an idiot, but he’s harmless. There’s nothing really nasty. It’s a nice story. And it’s a nice film.
We’re not still going to be talking about this in 25 years’ time (how on earth has it been 25 years?!) like we are with the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – although, to be fair, you can do a lot more in a mini-series than in a film – but it’s still well worth seeing. All that tea, and all that cake, and all those daffodils …