Emma BBC TV series

Emma

2009 - United Kingdom

‘An adaptation of this novel lives and dies with the chemistry between Emma and Mr Knightley, and this series did not disappoint in that regard.’

Emma review by Jennifer AJ

Like many Jane Austen’s novels, Emma has seen multiple adaptations since the dawn of moving pictures. Its simple yet relatable story has proven to endure the test of time and to date, Emma has been played by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Anya Taylor-Joy. The 2009 BBC miniseries might not be the first that comes to mind when you think “Emma adaptation”, but this one’s not to be missed. At four episodes long, you get more Emma and Mr Knightley – their character journey and fiery banters – as well as finer details that the movie versions usually gloss over. 

Emma - BBC 2009
Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller

The 2009 version stars Romola Garai as the titular character and Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley. The basic premise is just about the same: Emma Woodhouse is a “handsome, clever, and rich” young woman living in Highbury. For years, she lives with “very little to distress or vex her”, happily managing her vast Hartfield estate while caring for her worrywart father. Believing her opinions to be superior, Emma develops a penchant for matchmaking those around her, including a naive newfound companion named Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan – Endeavour, Call the Midwife). Her meddling in Harriet’s love match is heavily criticised by longtime family friend Mr Knightley, who believes Emma is persuading Harriet to punch above her weight. Meanwhile, Emma also develops an obsession with Frank Churchill (Rupert Evans - Bridgerton), son of fellow Highbury aristocrat whom she considers her one perfect match, though Mr Knightley holds him in way less regard. In every way, Emma and Mr Knightley continue to bicker with each other; but is it possible that, perhaps, there’s something other than animosity between them?

Emma - BBC 2009
Romola Garai and Rupert Evans

An adaptation of this novel lives and dies with the chemistry between Emma and Mr Knightley, and this series did not disappoint in that regard. The duo is meant to be far apart in age yet equal in intellect – Garai and Miller comfortably fit into that exact dynamic. The two have easy chemistry and comfortable rapport with each other, a crucial point since Emma and Knightley pretty much grow up together. With that out of the way, the job is half done already. Individually, the two embody these iconic characters really well. Garai – with her immaculate blond locks, tall stature, and sly expressions – totally nail Emma’s haughty and headstrong personality. Miller amicably balances her out with his controlled yet sympathetic performance. 

The next crucial point is getting the story right. Part romance, part coming-of-age, Emma’s story structure is basically easy to love. But this particular adaptation, written by Austen veteran Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon, feels even more fleshed out. For example, we get a glimpse of Emma’s childhood at the beginning of the series, allowing us to meet her before she grows up to be this haughty girl later on. 

The relatively young cast are supported by some stalwarts of British films and television such as Michael Gambon (Harry Potter, The Singing Detective), Tamsin Greig (Friday Night Dinner, Belgravia), and Robert Bathurst (New Tricks, Doctor Who).

Emma - BBC 2009

There’s a Disneyesque quality to the whole production, thanks to the lush cinematography, lovely score and cottage-core-worthy production design. While the 2020 Emma is gorgeous in a fanciful way, this one feels more earthy: the clothes look more worn, the town a bit unpolished, and the people more folksy. It’s charming in a humbler way. 

Overall, this one really gets the romance and humour of Emma, giving viewers a really worthwhile journey back to Hartfield.

Published on August 23rd, 2023. Written by Jennifer Ariesta for Television Heaven.

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