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Lest we be considered as foolish as our “lively and mischievous” twenty year old heroine Emma Woodhouse, we realize that traditionally it's a practice quite “badly done” indeed to argue with Mr. George Knightley.
Yet despite the fact that he is among the finest of gentlemen-- if at times even prouder and more prejudiced than Mr. Darcy-- when Knightley marvels that we're all “drawn like magnets” to Emma's Hartfield residence, in reality we're surprised to discover that it's been roughly 15 years since we last visited the house that Austen built.
Regardless of appreciating classical British productions of Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the film and Kate Beckinsale in the A&E television movie or Clueless featuring Alicia Silverstone as a contemporary meddlesome matchmaker, Emma was oddly absent from PBS and BBC line-ups for years.
And given the fact that Austen only crafted six novels, the vanishing act of Emma was noticeable to fans, even though Austen herself acknowledged in her own journals and letters, she was creating what she described as, “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.”
Yet, on the surface, Emma Woodhouse has the same strong spirit of Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, and Marianne Dashwood along with other Austen staples including: the obligatory sister yet Emma's is considerably out of the picture; a sympathetic (if overbearing) father; and a villainous male whom in this case is guilty of less serious infractions than revealed in the other works.
However, Emma differs from the very beginning because Austen abandoned her oft-explored territory considering the romantic plight of penniless women who-- similar to Jane Austen-- find themselves on a major detour to the altar because their lack of financial stability, social status, or a sufficient dowry makes them an unsuitable match.
Intriguingly the only Austen title to have been given such a distinction of sharing the same name as the main character, Emma is quite different from the other heroines of Austen or her contemporaries as she's overly carefree, wealthy, idle, comfortable, optimistic, and not lacking anything.
And unlike previous literary efforts, Austen replaces the woes of being sent out on the hunt for an advantageous match with an admirably ambitious plot worthy of Shakespearean comedy. Still admittedly, the tale of a sheltered father's daughter with no aspirations to marry in favor of connecting people like dots in terms of romance may infer that it's a simplistic trifle.
However, as those who've read the novel can attest, on the contrary Emma may indeed possess Austen's most complicated plot. Likewise, it showcases a snappier wit and more inventive structural devices than Sense and Pride which, while being superior, are a bit on the similar and repetitive side.
In fact, it is the complexity of the plot-line that makes this complete 4 episode (229 minute) version of the tale from BBC and PBS, the strongest retelling of Emma from page to screen yet. And classically speaking, this 2009 Emma as envisioned by screenwriter Sandy Welch is an Austen addict's dream.
Having previously bewitched viewers with her work in I Capture the Castle and Vanity Fair along with excellent turns in Atonement, Dirty Dancing 2, As You Like It and The Other Man, Romola Garai brings back that same deliciously spunky smile and independent spirit showcased in Castle as her eyes literally sparkle while she concocts her next love match.
Unfortunately in the miniseries' one major shortcoming, the opening serves up important plot details in a series of fast cuts and connections that rival Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia meets Pushing Daisies for the sheer amount of data conveyed to the audience in the shortest amount of time possible. While this presentation will undoubtedly confuse newcomers to Emma's Hartfield, luckily it settles into a spirited rhythm as it continues.
However, due to the running time, while the story remains the same, screenwriter Welch and director Jim O'Hanlon ensure that the many characters that move in and around Hartfield all feel as though they're as authentic as if we'd bumped into them a la the heroine in the miniseries, Lost in Austen.
At the same time, we get a better sense of why Emma is seemingly both intelligent and quite silly in designing marriage schemes among her friends because of her sheltered nature. In fact, this time around we could consider Emma slightly codependent in an overprotective yet loving relationship with her best friend and father, played by Michael Gambon that gives off a Say Anything... vibe. Likewise, Welch further addresses the impact of Emma's misguided actions consisting of a prettier yet slightly dimmer Harriet than we normally see, a larger part for the wife of Emma's scorned Mr. Elton, as well as a much more likable spin on Jane Fairfax.
One of the major grievances about Emma from some Austen enthusiasts is in their argument that Knightley was never the man that the scribe's other creations including Pride's Mr. Darcy and Sense's Colonel Brandon were by comparison. In fact, some readers even go as far as to note that when Knightley and Emma fall in love, it's the equivalent of a Shakespearean Taming of the Shrew.
Yet and to his immense credit, as played by the slyly sexy and talented Jonny Lee Miller, we're given a Knightley we haven't encountered so far. Shockingly snobbish in one scene and the very soul of gentlemanly perfection in the next, Miller's ability to underplay the meaning of lines and the slight beats he takes in scenes where she unknowingly wounds his pride as an older man are striking. Through Miller, suddenly, we're able to key into other points-of-view including males in this piece, which is an Austen rarity that I've only ever encountered previously in director Joe Wright's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
And while Austen is never taken as seriously as Dickens during award season, Emmy and Golden Globe voters should already set their sights on Garai, Miller, Gambon, screenwriter Welch, director O'Hanlon among others for what is the most thorough and jaw-droppingly lovely presentation of Emma I've seen thus far.
Likewise, it's sure to make you want to revisit the adaptations included in Masterpiece Classics' Jane Austen showcase one year ago including the new feminist spin on Persuasion with Sally Hawkins, a more age-appropriate Sense and Sensibility, and others. To this end and aside from the rushed introduction, my only criticism for this title is that Masterpiece Theatre isn't re-running all of the productions back-to-back now that we have our definitive Emma that you'll be drawn to like Hartfield sized magnets as soon as the first DVD begins.
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