My Year with Jane Austen: “Emma Approved” [2013]

mv5bmtq0mjewndk5of5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjuznta3mde40._v1_sy1000_cr007231000_al_YouTube Series: “Emma Approved”

Release Year: 2013

Actors: Emma – Joanna Sotomura

Alex Knightley – Brent Bailey

Harriet Smith – Dayeanne Hutton

Frank Churchill – Stephen A. Chang

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

First off, as a comparison to the other YouTube adaptation I’ve reviewed in this series, I think this version is much more successful than the last. For one thing, I think we got to actually see more of the events we’re familiar with from the book on the screen. In the other version, we mostly had Lizzie telling the viewers second-hand stories or trying to re-enact them. Not only do I not thing that actress was fully up to the job, but it was always going to be a hard sell when you don’t have the actual people in front of you. Here, the casting is not only perfect and this Emma, I believe, is a strong actor, but many of the scenes and conversations from the book are included on screen. Having a larger and more varied cast really helps this version.

I’ll get into it more later, too, but this version also comes off better than the “Lizzie Bennett Diaries” in the romance arena. Alex Knightley is in the majority of the episodes, and it is the relationship between him and Emma that carries the show almost equal with Emma’s own arc of foibles and ultimate self-realization. Due to his being around for so much more of the story, and for the audience to have plenty of opportunities to see him and Emma together, their ultimate romantic conclusion is much less awkward and weird to watch from a viewer perspective.

As a comparison to the book, I think it does really well. It really hits most of the major plot points, and the set-up of Emma and Alex running a match-making/event organizing company really works well for much of it. I loved the clever interpretation it brought to many of the characters and important scenes. They also threw in a bunch of lines from the book that are sure to please avid “Emma” lovers.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this version more than the other. I had wondered whether simply viewing these a second time was part of my struggle with “The Lizzie Bennett Diares,” but I really enjoyed this one, probably as much as the first time. So, I think this one is just better overall. I think the story is probably better suited for this type of thing. The acting was better. And overall, it just came together in a much more seamless, natural way.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I really like Joanna Sotomura’s take on Emma. I think she nails the essential elements of the character. She’s charming, witty, and overly confident. But also endearing and sympathetic, so when she blunders, it’s easy for the viewers to be in her corner and root for her ultimate success. Even early in the show, when we see her beginning to doubt the success of the Westons’ marriage, her balance of cocky over-assurance and intervention still comes off as sympathetic when paired with her obvious concern. It’s clear that she values her reputation as a success, but we also never doubt that she cares about those around her.

All of this is even more striking once Caroline Lee shows up. Alex Knightley even compares the two, saying they have a lot in common about interfering in other’s lives thinking they know best. Emma protests that she is nothing like Caroline, and while we can all see the point that Alex is making, Emma is also right. It’s distinctly clear to the viewers that they are different and while Emma blunders sometimes and doesn’t see everything clearly, she, unlike Caroline, truly does care about those she thinks she is helping and hurts for them when she messes things up.

I also really like this version of Harriet Smith and Emma’s older sister, Izzy. Harriet is a perfect modern adaptation of the character we have on the page. She clearly idolizes Emma, and while I, personally, don’t put much stock in fashion choices as a major personal improvement, we do see her gain confidence in herself.

And Izzy’s struggles with her husband are very relatable, not being able to stand up for herself in the face of her husband’s strict adherence to financial planning. Here, too, we see Emma really shine as she sees a problem that no one else, including Izzy, sees and manages to fix, albeit with a few bumps in the road. It’s actually one of the few moments where Alex’s Knightley’s criticisms of her come off as the least sympathetic, as anyone hearing Izzy’s account of how her requests have been constantly denied can see that Emma has the right of the situation, not Alex or his brother. Complaints that John feels like choices are being made behind his back land on supremely unsympathetic ears to my mind. But I’m also biased as a stay-at-home mom (for now) myself and Izzy’s situation razed my hackles immediately.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I also really like this version of Mr. Knightley. I think this is probably what stands out the most when comparing my experience watching this adaptation and “The Lizzie Bennett Diares”: there was really no escaping, there, the challenge of having your leading man absent for half of the run and then only in a handful of episodes after that. Here, Alex is almost in every single episode, and his bantering, lecturing friendship with Emma is clearly the foundation upon which all the rest of the show is built.

The actor really nails the balance between fond dismay at Emma’s actions and the more serious interventions when he sees her crossing a line. His frequent exclamations of “Emma!” are perfectly in-tune with how I’d imagine a modern Knightley would interact with Emma. The idea of them being business partners is also a clever way of keeping the two constantly in each other’s circles and Alex Knightley constantly attuned to Emma’s antics.

He also does very well with the few fights they have, lecturing Emma on her intervention into Harriet’s life (she’s not even a client!) and her poor treatment of Maddie Bates towards the end. But we also see him stand by her when it matters, catching himself in the middle of his anger about Emma’s interference in their siblings’ relationship when he realizes that Emma may truly be on to something that none of the rest of them see.

Perhaps it’s due to the increased screen time or just the character himself, but I was a much bigger fan of this actor’s Knightley than I was of Darcy in the other version. While Darcy, by the very nature of the character, is a bit harder to warm up to, the actor didn’t really have enough “oomf” to land him as endearing once he did arrive. It’s a very hard line to walk, trying to make a romantic hero who rarely smiles appealing. So this character was probably much more easy, but I still think credit goes to the actor for doing such a good job.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

Mr. Elton’s character is reimagined into a snobby politician, and it’s a great alternative. He’s just as insincere and ambitious as the original character, and it’s easy for audiences to quickly see that Emma is sniffing up the wrong tree with him. There’s also a great adherence to the original story with Emma misunderstanding who gifts (poems in the original, flowers/yogurt/concert tickets here) are for. And then later Emma writes a song to have Harriet perform, and Elton Tweets it out, with Emma clearly missing that he is taking the song as proof of Emma’s interest, not Harriet’s. When it all comes to a head, he is all the more unlikable for being such a stuck-up snob. This Harriet is nowhere near as “questionable” as the version in the book where things like unknown parents could be a very real detractor. What’s actually wrong with this Harriet? Nothing, other than not being as fancy as Emma or the later Mrs. Caroline Lee/Elton.

Speaking of Caroline, that has to be one of the best surprises of this entire run, and a perfect nod to fans who watched both series. Those who have know to immediately dislike her and understand her nods to “not minding documentaries.” But she’s also obviously bad enough for new viewers to not need much to equally dislike her. I love the substitution for calling Mr. Knightley “Knightley,” to calling Alex “Al.” And, of course, Emma’s complete disgust at it all.

Frank Churchill is also perfectly cast. I have to imagine he watched some other versions of “Emma” before taking this part as there seem to be direct nods to other actors’ versions of the part in the way he performs it. Even in the delivery of his lines, he just fits perfectly alongside all the other variations of this character we’ve seen. And, in a satisfying twist to the story, his truly bad actions, like flirting with Emma and dismissing Jane so harshly, are not swept under the rug. Instead, she dumps him, and the show ends with him realizing he wants her back and will have to work for it. It’s a dose of justice for the Jane Fairfax character who I always sided with Mr. Knightley on: “I feel sorry for her.”

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance in this show is probably almost as important as the depiction of Emma herself. Unlike the book, to most media consumers, it’s pretty obvious from the start that Emma and Alex are endgame, thus their chemistry and interactions are important from the very first. Luckily, these actors have great chemistry together, and their teasing, friendly relationship is just the sort that appeals to fans of rom-coms.

We never see anything truly overt on either of their sides throughout most of the show, but it’s still pretty clear. Alex’s early dislike of Frank Churchill is probably the biggest clue on his part. And, of course, Emma’s dismissal at her friend’s theories about Alex and Jane speak to her unknowing interest in him.

I really liked how they played Emma’s realization about her true feelings for Alex. The actor really manages to nail the shock of Harriet’s confession and then through mostly subtle facial expressions, demonstrate Emma’s change of heart. It’s also really great how they play the scene where Emma is trying to be a good friend to Alex but puts him off from his confession due to her concerns that he is about to confess his love for Harriet. When she chases after him again, there’s some really nice humor in her trying to build herself up to hear the news. And then, later, Alex’s question about what she thought he was about to say when the truth.

I also really like the final payoff we get for a running joke we see throughout about flowers being romantic. Early on, Elton brings Harriet a new kind of yogurt and flowers for Emma. And it is only after the whole debacle comes to light that Emma has to re-orient herself with a new mantra: “Food means friendship. Flowers mean romance.” So it’s really great to see this come around again when Alex gives her flowers, and she, bewildered, says “But…flowers mean romance.” It’s very sweet.

On a general note, I also found this romance much less voyeuristic and uncomfortable to see come to a head. I’m not sure why. It’s probably some combination of the increased screen time for the romantic hero. The fact that the Alex character is just much easier to see in a romance plot line than the version of Darcy we had in the other YouTube series. Or the simple fact that these actors had better chemistry. It also probably helps that we see their entire relationship progress and the fact that they are so comfortable with each other from the start makes the audience more comfortable as well. Lizzie and Darcy were so awkward together that it’s no wonder they made others uncomfortable watching them!

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Emma and Alex do most of the heavy lifting as far as the comedy goes as well. They by far get the most screen time and, with their character arcs, have the most opportunities to take advantage of comedic elements in the story. Harriet is too sincere much of the time to really be funny. Jane Fairfax is almost too serious to really like in this version.While I like that her relationship with Frank Churchill ends, this was probably the one character in this show who seems the most different than their book counterpart. She’s almost so snobby in her “do-goodery” that one finds oneself coming down on Emma’s side of their conflict. In the book, it’s clear that Jane is a good natured, though quiet, woman and most of Emma’s problems with her are based purely in the fact that she makes Emma insecure. Here, however, Jane is kind of off-putting, making Emma’s discomfort feel completely natural.

This mostly leaves Maddie Bates to carry the rest of the weight for the comedy side of things. And she’s great! I really love how they carried over Mrs. Bates deafness and how Maddie Bates will dictate back conversations with her mother by starting out “And then I said ‘MOMMA!'”, yelling that last word at the camera. It’s just great. I also really liked this version’s interpretation of the Box Hill incident. Here it’s for a restaurant opening, Boxx Hill, that Emma and her company are hosting. Maddie tries to bring forward her (terrible) home-made jams, and Emma publicly mocks her for how bad they are. It’s a perfect adaptation of the incident, and even though we don’t see it, we get to see plenty of the fall-out as Jane quits the company and Alex delivers the famous “Badly done!” line. But, of course, it all ends well with Emma apologizing to Maddie Bates, and Maddie demonstrating how truly good and kind-hearted she is by quickly forgiving Emma and working to help her in Alex’s absence.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Not a lot for this one, it seems: the actors who played Emma and Alex Knightley were dating while they filmed this. That probably helped with the good ole chemistry. They’re also both currently in a show called “Quarantine” about out-of-work soap opera cast members in L.A. Mildly interested in checking that out, mostly due to the adorableness of these two here.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Just a cute little moment between these two. Really, their relationship is the funniest part of the entire thing.

In two weeks, I’ll the first half of “Mansfield Park.”

 

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