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Emma (2009) – BBC’s Whimsical Miniseries

Emma DVD

Emma (2009) Review

It’s been six years since I first sat down to watch BBC’s most recent adaptation of Emma. Ironically, that inaugural viewing was I believe, around the same time of year I sat down to watch it again this month. (In those six years since watching this adaptation, this is only my second viewing.) While a second viewing didn’t damper my appreciation or take away from the charm that is Jane Austen, there was a certain commentary of criticism running through my mind as everything unfolded.

Emma BBC 2009 (3)
Romola Garai as Emma.

Though everyone is sure to be familiar with the story of Emma, let’s go through the players regardless. There is the wealthy and young protagonist, Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai) whose sole purpose in life seems to be playing cupid to her circle of country friends. As is widely known, Emma intends to never marry. She needs no fortune and her position in society cannot very well exceed what she has now. Instead, she prefers caring for her father (Michael Gambon) and meddling in the lives of her closest neighbors. Entangled in the lives of the Woodhouse’s is Emma’s beloved governess, Mrs. Weston (Johdi May); the newly returned Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans) and Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper); Emma’s new friend Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan); Mr. Elton (Blake Riston), the proud minister; and neighbor Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller).

Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Emma and Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller).

As wonderfully romantic as this is, there are some faults I wish had been polished. The cast is sure to read like a who’s who list of talented British talent, but I have to confess I wasn’t terribly fond of how Romola played the iconic character of Emma. In comparison to her predecessors, she plays her with almost a… daft wit that’s so unlike the Emma I anticipated. I don’t mind her softening Emma (in comparison to Kate Beckinsale’s stiff upper lip or Gwyneth Paltrow’s coy elegance), but Romola also plays her with too much childish enthusiasm. Fortunately, as the miniseries progresses, she does improve on this as is indicative of her character maturing. Which is perhaps the intent of the writer and for that, I do have to admire the progression. My final complaint would be some of the styling or mannerisms. Some of the clucky manners just don’t fit with the period or my ideal vision of it. That being said, I have plenty of rave remarks to share.

Emma BBC 2009 (5)
For exploration and depth, this miniseries has the edge. Because it tells the story in four hours versus two or under, it has the extra benefit of thoroughly examining the characters’ motives and people in Emma’s world. We see more of Miss Bates’ difficult and lonely life, for example, and there is a more sympathetic view of an innocent Jane Fairfax. The script also digs into Knightley’s head for a more personal touch on what makes him tick. Jonny Lee Miller is perhaps not everyone’s ideal and yet he’s quite brilliant as Knightley. The interplay between he and Emma isn’t as witty, but there is something special about the chemistry between Miller and Garai. And the ending of this series? It’s positively darling.

Emma BBC 2009 (7)Though I do often compare Austen adaptations, I really don’t like judging this adaptation in a side-by-side kind of comparison to the feature films. More fairly would be to compare it to the ’80s adaptation from the BBC, which this far surpasses. I enjoyed the gorgeous settings and the smaller (in scale) atmosphere of the parties or estates. There is a wonderful, innocent kind of whimsy to this script, which despite my petty complaints, enchants. The cast is largely well put together and simply because this runs longer I felt more satisfied with the story it had to tell. Everything gets the time it deserves and the story is able to ensure it gives every detail that extra attention. But of course, the biggest reason I hold this adaptation in such high esteem is simply for the fact of seeing Mr. Knightley, who is, in my opinion, Austen’s best.

Emma is available to purchase on a 2-disc DVD set or to stream on Amazon’s Instant Video service and rent on Netflix.

Have you seen this, the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma? Comment down below with your impressions; I would love to read them.

Photos: BBC 

Overall Rating

Four and a half corset rating

“You had me at hello.”

Romance Rating
Five heart rating

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.

I have loved none but you.”

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By on October 15th, 2015

About Rissi JC

Rissi is a self-diagnosed Bookaholic and TV fandom addict. She’s currently an avid blogger and reader who enjoys interacting with readers, and often dreams about finishing her first novel. When not writing or reading, she can be found working as an INSPYs advisory board member or contributing to e-zines. Her scribbles are housed on her blog Finding Wonderland (https://www.rissiwrites.com).

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17 thoughts on “Emma (2009) – BBC’s Whimsical Miniseries”

  1. Thanks for the great review Rissi! And I could talk all day about my impressions of this lovely period drama. I personally loved everything about this adaptation. I admit Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai are two of my favorite actors! For me, there was something inherently closer to Austen’s work with this adaptation and all the performances. I was particularly happy to see Emma’s father (played by the always fabulous Michael Gambon) more fleshed out and interesting. Also, while many of the adaptations I’ve seen (and still love) are great, they do end up feeling more like romantic comedies – which technically they are – while not exploring as much of the dramatic aspects of the characters painted by Austen. For that reason (and the perfect cast and awesome writer Sandy Welch – who also adapted the 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre), this is by far my favorite adaptation. Though I do have a special place in my heart for Jeremy Northam’s wit. 🙂

    • It was such fun to review and see this again (and the A&E ‘Emma’), Amber! I’ve really enjoyed revisiting all of the adaptations and am looking forward to watching the last one (Miramax) yet. You know, after I finished this review I remembered two or three additional things I’d have liked to gush or talk about. Alas, I forgot and given how long-winded I can be, perhaps that was best. 😉 You say it all so well in your comment. Mr. Woodhouse is fantastic and much better represented/understood; Jonny and Romola are darling; and of course, I appreciate that we get four hours vs. two. Like you, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I still hold a fondness for Northam. There’s just something about the way he plays Knightley that I love. 🙂

      • Agreed.. Jonny Lee Miller’s played Knightly to portray strength, honesty and the tini hints of vulnerability that escape in his expressions when with Emma melt my heart. The “dance” scene and “ have I no chance of succeeding” kiss scene just moves my heart. What talent as well as the ability to connect to role and co star….uhhhh Food for the soul. I will pull up either one of those scenes on Amazon prime, and watch them when I need a lift.

      • I have to admit that Knightley played by Miller is absolutely amazing. I binge-watched the series only for him twice in the same week. His love for her is so subtle and no one could have pulled it off better. I watched Emma 2020 and didn’t like it at all.i mean it was good in its own way Emma 2009 is the best.

  2. This is my favorite movie version of Emma. I much prefer Romola Garai’s Emma to Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Also, I think the actress who plays Harriet Smith is a better fit for the character than the 1997 movie. I enjoyed seeing the small everyday special moments between the characters, Emma and her father, Emma’s sister and brother-in-law interacting with Emma and Knightley, Emma and Mrs. Weston. I feel like these moments had a more intimate feeling in this version. Overall, I have really enjoyed seeing the more recent BBC remakes of Jane Austen’s stories.

    • This version is lovely, Brittaney. I have a few quibbles with it, but then, I generally walk away with some of those for any adaptation. 🙂 Probably what I love best about this adaptation is also the everyday moments. The length gives us SO much more than the standard films. Like you, I enjoyed all of the more recent Austen adaptations and applaud the wonderful writers, filmmakers and cast who took part. These period dramas are my “one weakness” when it comes to film or miniseries. I could watch so many over and over again without getting bored. Thanks a bunch for sharing your thoughts on this one. 🙂

  3. I really like this adaptation as well. I think it may be my favourite Emma. I have seen people critique Romola Garai’s rather goofy, playful representation, and I admit I imagine Emma as a more elegant and sedate character. So I completely understand people who have a problem with this but at the same time, I found her so endearing, I can’t bring myself to dislike these touches. I agree that this adaptation adds depth to the characters. This film made me notice for the first time that there were strong similarities between Frank Churchill’s and Jane Fairfax’s early childhood experiences. It showed a greater connection between them which I really appreciated. I also loved the exploration of Emma wanting to travel and how Knightley supported her wish. I agree that Jonny Lee Miller is very good in this and he and Romola Garai have wonderful chemistry.

    • I’m glad, Dixie-Ann. I enjoy this for the length and depth of the character! It wasn’t exactly what I thought (the photos made it look so elegant) in comparison to the other adaptations, but despite my petty complaints, I DO enjoy this version best. I’m wondering if part of Romola’s characterization stems from Emma’s youth (i.e., when the series starts she’s still quite young and therefore, immature, perhaps?). I don’t know in comparison to the book but either way, it’s not enough to bother. Like you, I loved the thread about Emma having never travelled. It upped the sweet romance. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  4. The BBC also produced an adaptation of “Emma” in 1972, which is more modest, and as is to be expected, with stagy interiors, but it’s an interesting take. I liked the other versions too, as all of them had their strengths and weaknesses.

  5. This is a long thread. I have just (December 2020) watched this version for the 3rd time since 2009. I absolutely agree with two important points in this commentary. First, the length of this version allows for a much more complete telling of the story. More of the back story of each character, or of the context of a current event, permits us to appreciate the characters. I recently watched the 2020 theatrical version of Emma, which is very different and very delightful. If, however, one is not familiar with the plot of Emma, some events and interactions would be puzzling. Second, I loved Romola Garai in this part. At times I was struck by the almost giddy portrayal of Emma, but then I was convinced that this was intended to illustrate her slowly growing maturity and wisdom. This is a very good cast. When I started watching this Emma for the first time, I could not convince myself that Johnny Lee Miller was right for the part, but I came away with an great appreciation for the work he did. I also like the 1996 Kate Beckinsale Emma, even though her take on Emma is totally different. It has the length to do the story greater justice. Of all of the versions of Emma from 1996 forward, the 1996 Paltrow version is my least favorite, for a number of reasons. I found it almost unwatchable a few years ago when I returned to it to see if it was better than I originally thought.
    So I heartily recommend this verison of Emma, a wonderful production.

  6. I adore everything about this adaptation and have watched it numerous times. Mr. Miller and Ms. Garai are perfect as GK & EW. Garai’s interpretation shows Emma as being totally immersed in the everyday life of Highbury unlike the more snobby/standoffish Emma of Anne Taylor-Joy in the 2020 film. Emma is a leading citizen of the small community and you can sense the admiration by friends and neighbors such as Miss Bates, Mr. Weston (before his marriage to Miss Taylor), Mrs. Goddard and Mrs. Cole. As many others have said, the length of this version makes for a better “fleshing out” of the characters and situations. Lead by the two main characters/actors, this is wonderful and I have a need to begin a re-watch this evening!!!!

  7. I have just found this site whilst looking for where the house that Emma and Mr Woodhouse live in, i very informative review of the film, i too found Romola to be an excellent Emma, i just warmed to her, by far the best adaptation i have seen, i rate it along the same lines as the 1995 BBC version of Pride & Predudice. The whole piece was just so well knitted together and i loved Emma’s more vulnerable nature and the relationship with Johnny Lee Miller.


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