Miss perfect

The new BBC/WGBH Emma gets a 10
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 12, 2010

CHEMISTRY: Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller could play any Jane Austen romantic couple you like.

I know what you're thinking: "Another Emma? Didn't we just have a bushel of Jane Austen adaptations for TV?" Well, WGBH did give us four new Austens, but that was all the way back in 2008, a Jane-ite eternity. And Emma wasn't among them. In fact, not counting Clueless, there've been only three previous film adaptations of Austen's mature masterpiece: the stagy, low-budget 1972 BBC mini-series; the 1996 Miramax theatrical release, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam; and the 1996 A&E TV movie, with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong.

This fourth one, created by WGBH and the BBC and premiering on Masterpiece Classics next Sunday (January 24: 9-11 pm; January 31 + February 7: 9-10 pm), with Romola Garai (I Capture the Castle) as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) as Mr. Knightley, is the best of the lot. It takes its cue from MC host Laura Linney, who with a wink and a smile offers an insight before each part and then gets out of the way. Like Knightley, it's intelligent, patient, laconic, and to the point. It doesn't sentimentalize the muck of early-19th-century England, and it doesn't rub your nose in it, either. At four hours (the two 1996 Emmas ran around two each), it has time to survey the Austen landscape, and it does so with good sense and good humor.

The latter is apparent in the deadpan opening voiceover, which tells us that "Emma Woodhouse was born with the sun shining" (as opposed to Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, who start life under a cloud). The former takes a quarter-hour or so to kick in. First a fatuous Emma, peeved at the praises Jane Fairfax is receiving for her accomplishments, announces, "I'm going to ask Mr. Knightley to teach me Chinese." No, Jane Austen didn't write that. Neither did Austen have Emma, in her matchmaker role, bring her sister Isabella and Knightley's brother John together. Emma would have been some 12 years old at the time.

Once director Jim O'Hanlon and screenwriter Sandy Welch decide to kiss by the book, however, all is well. There are felicitous departures — as when Knightley arrives at Hartfield with the news that Mr. Elton is engaged. In the novel, Miss Bates arrives right behind him and beats him to the punch; here, Knightley sees that Harriet Smith (who herself was hoping to marry Elton) is present and withholds the painful announcement. It's not all words, either. Emma wanders through Hartfield silent and lonely after Miss Taylor leaves to marry Mr. Weston; Jane Fairfax throws Frank Churchill a dark glance when she spies him in the street with Emma; Knightley looks wistful when he recalls Frank and Emma dancing together, after which we see a solitary swan glide over a lake — Knightley's future?

But the bottom line in any Austen adaptation is the casting. This one has Michael Gambon as an insistingly overcautious Mr. Woodhouse, Louise Dylan as a pert but not overbright Harriet Smith, Tamsin Greig as an insipid but not silly Miss Bates, Blake Ritson as a pompous Elton, Laura Pyper as a still-waters Jane Fairfax, and Rupert Evans as a cheekily irresistible Frank Churchill.

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