Monday, February 8, 2010

Ladylike Pursuits

To my American friends: Please tell me you watched the conclusion of the Emma miniseries on Masterpiece Classic last night INSTEAD of the football game? Please. It ranks right up there with the BBC's Pride and Prejudice as a successful literary adaptation. Each casting choice was perfect. Ickie and I thoroughly enjoyed Emma and Knightley's verbal sparring. Romola Garai (also excellent in I Capture the Castle and Daniel Deronda) was spunky and just a bit spoilt, while still exhibiting compassion, doubt, and remorse when the occasion called for it. She was not only a convincing character--she was very much like my friends and I at that age. The final scene with Michael Gambon (playing Emma's father) made me a wee bit teary; several scenes of Emma acting overly dramatic made Ickie and I laugh fairly hard; Mr. Elton and his wife (the vexatious Christina Cole) made us cringe (I got a kick out of Garai's agog expressions in these scenes); and the ball scenes made me all giggly and weak in the knees. I appreciated the amount of time devoted to fleshing out the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; their messy, complex relationship was convincing, as was Frank's alternately careless and affable "guy-ness." (Is that a word? It ought to be. Frank just exudes mid-20s guy-ness.) Harriet was dim but extremely pretty and innocent. Even Isabella and the older Mr. Knightley have some scenes that round out the family dynamic well.

I really have to applaud the screenplay authors. The dialogue was well done, and it was a smart choice to begin the series on a darker note, comparing the lots of young Emma, Frank, and Jane. When Emma's mother dies, she remains at home with her sister, father, and a nurturing governess. By contrast, Frank is sent to his overbearing aunt, and Jane grows up with more prosperous relatives. In addition to the children's misery at being sent away, we see how sad Mr. Weston is to see Frank go, and how broken Miss Bates is when she must give up her niece. Miss Bates is especially tragic: her poverty prevents her from raising Jane and puts her at an awkward position in society, but more than that, she's painfully lonely. Her mother is mute and unresponsive, so Miss Bates fills the empty hours with one-sided small talk and doting over Jane's letters. I may appreciate the special attention to her situation most of all.

I confess that I haven't read Emma in quite a few years, but I don't recall any major departures from the text. I'd love to hear what other Austen fans thought of this beautiful production. If you missed it, you can watch it on the PBS website. It is also available on Netflix.

My other ladylike (or not so ladylike, depending on how you see it) entertainment this week was reading Winnifred Watson's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I had seen the movie when it came out in the theater, and whereas many details in the movie differ from the book, overall I consider it a successful adaptation because the feel of the thing is spot on. It's much like Fry and Laurie's Jeeves and Wooster insofar as the plot is great fun but slightly irrelevant; it's more essential that the mood and humor of the books translate well. Anyhoo, Miss Pettigrew is a twist on the Cinderella story set in 1930s London. The book has just enough levity to balance the frivolity. My edition had a preface nearly as charming as the book. Here's a lovely little snippet from the preface about the author:

The common theme running through these novels is women having second chances, adapting to change, moving on, just as Winifred Watson herself experimented with different genres: changing direction was characteristic of her as a writer. And in the end she changed into no longer being a writer, which I regret, but which she does not seem to. She said to me 'I have had a very happy life.' And in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day she wrote a very happy novel.

Hence, I've spent my week with two characters who have second chances, but on opposing ends of the spectrum. On one end is an affluent young woman who is used to getting her way, but who learns to be more selfless and restrained. On the other end is a middle-aged woman who has known only poverty and drudgery, and she's able to let loose and have fun for the first time in her life. It's a very pleasant way to balance things out.