Fast on the heels of last year’s spate of Jane Austen adaptations, PBS is trotting out their latest miniseries, a new four-hour version of Emma, produced by the BBC and starring Romola Garai in the title role. Unlike the watered-down productions of last winter, Emma, adapted by Sandy Welch, is the best televised adaptation of an Austen novel since the infamous Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt Pride & Prejudice.
Some will ask if the world needs another Jane Austen period costumer. But whether or not the world needs it, Austen adaptations aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. It turns out that her six perfect novels are perfect for the big screen; it’s partly their balance of romance, humor, and triumph over circumstance, but it’s also that Austen’s rigid society of coded language and gesture translates nicely to the screen. When well filmed, Austen’s stories unfold as visual depictions of the game of love, players shifting in and out of scenes like dancers at a Regency ball.
Emma Woodhouse, the heroine that Austen herself claimed “no one but myself will much like,” is famous, of course, as a matchmaker and a meddler. Unlike some of her predecessors, notably the Bennett sisters in Pride & Prejudice, Emma has nothing to gain financially by marriage, and has thus ruled it out of her own future in favor of being mistress of her own house and her friends. What this adaptation does superbly well is show how Emma’s interfering constitutes a moral superiority and thus a diminished worldview. The primary visual metaphor of this beautifully filmed series is that of expansion and open space. As Emma badly judges those around her and learns from the consequences of her actions, the world, one that includes love, inevitably, but also kindness and compassion, opens up in front of her eyes.
It takes some getting used to Garai as Emma, especially in the early scenes. She rolls her eyes and shrugs her shoulders, her face in constant flux, changing moods like the emoticons used by a text-messaging teen. At times it seems as though she is channeling Alicia Silverstone’s performance in Clueless, itself an update of Emma, and that her acting choice is a deliberate ploy to attract a more modern audience for which emotional restraint is unreadable. The performance starts to make sense, however, when you realize Emma is a young woman who thinks she knows her own heart and has nothing to hide. Toward the end of the four-hour miniseries, Emma is both less sure of herself and yet more self-assured, and Garai reflects that physically and emotionally in her altered presence.
There are no bad performances here: Jonny Lee Miller makes a handsome, sad-eyed Knightley; Michael Gambon is slyly funny and ultimately touching as Emma’s anxiety-ridden father; and Tamsin Greig, an actress known for her roles in British sitcoms, steals all her scenes as Miss Bates, the town bore. The production design is both gorgeous and lived-in, the costumes earthy and beautiful, and the music by Samuel Sim is stirring, particularly during the crucial ball on which much of the narrative hinges.
At times, the direction interferes with the flow of the story, such as some ill-advised flashbacks that are inserted to fill in blanks that are already filled in by dialogue. And the opening sequence, showing each main character as a baby, is both unnecessary and confusing. But these are minor complaints about a television event as humanistic and entertaining as Emma, a series that reinforces Austen’s relevance and further justifies her adaptability.