New “Emma” Doesn’t Quite Hit the Mark

emma2009I felt as if I were watching “Emma” 2009 through smudged glass. I found it entertaining for the most part, but it never deeply engaged my emotions and it didn’t make me laugh enough.

PBS’ “Masterpiece” will air the BBC’s latest version of “Emma” (which debuted in the UK in fall 2009)  in three weekly episodes (a 2-hour episode and two 1-hour episodes), starting this Sunday, Jan. 24.

I’ll start by admitting that I wasn’t sure why we needed a remake of “Emma” anyway. We already have three filmed takes on Jane Austen’s comic novel: the very good 1972 BBC “Emma” with Doran Godwin, the excellent 1996 BBC version with Kate Beckinsale , and the wonderful 1996 Miramax feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Then there’s “Clueless,” the cute 1995 movie starring Alicia Silverstone that transports Austen’s meddling heroine to modern times. Then again, it’s been 13 years since the last Emmas aired, enough time for a new generation to need introduction to Austen’s clueless anti-heroine.

In the new “Emma,” Romola Garai mugs her way through the title role; at any moment I expected her to say, “Omigod!” This version of “Emma” was no doubt designed to appeal to viewers younger than I. After the first half hour or so, I got used to Garai’s interpretation of Austen’s comic heroine, though I can’t say I ever fell in love with it.

While my heart will forever belong to Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley,  Jonny Lee Miller’s performance in the new version probably comes closest to the Mr. Knightley of Austen’s novel. Northam (Miramax 1996 film) played up Knightley’s sense of humor. Mark Strong (BBC 1996) emphasized his more serious side. Miller skillfully blends the two.

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The Bitch in a Bonnet

Sometimes it takes a guy to remind many of us women what Jane Austen was really about. In his new blog, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi, author of satirical novels, explains why Jane Austen is one of his influences and why it pisses him off that he can’t tell people that because she’s widely viewed as the dewy-eyed, romantic mother of “chick lit.” He’s out to reclaim her reputation as a superb social satirist.

I don’t agree 100% with his views of Austen or chick lit. While much of Austen’s literary reputation lies in her ability to roast upper class hypocrites to a crisp, her comedies of manners did take the form of love stories, after all. Pride and Prejudice is about the strictures and hypocrisy of uppercrust Georgian society, but it is also about how love often arrives in disguise and is a worthy reason for marrying. Emma is a good meditation on the dangers of an aristocracy with way too much time on its hands, but it’s also about how the love of your life can turn out to be your oldest friend, the guy you’ve been taking for granted all these years.

As for “chick lit,” the best of it does follow in Jane Austen’s steps, using love stories as the vehicle to make points about society and gender roles.

But Rodi makes a good point. When people ask me why I like Jane Austen, my first response is usually, “Because she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s merciless.” Those who haven’t read her books look puzzled when I say that. If I’m reading an Austen novel and I don’t laugh or say “Ouch!” at least every other page, I figure I need to reread it because I’ve just missed something.

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Jane Austen Popular as Ever with Filmmakers

Next to Shakespeare, Austen is one of the most widely adapted English writers. The plots of her novels have been modernized, satirized, idolized, and revised every which way. And she’s as popular as ever, judging by projects in the works:

  • The BBC is once again filming a mini-series of “Emma,” for release this fall. The four-part series stars Romula Garai (“Atonement”) in the title role, with Jonny Lee Miller (who played Edmund Bertram in 1999’s “Mansfield Park”) as Mr. Knightley. We last visited “Emma” in 1996, which saw the release of both a BBC miniseries (starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong) and a feature film. I’m not sure anyone can top the latter, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s delightfully dizzy Emma and Jeremy Northam’s devastatingly charming Mr. Knightley, but more of “Emma” can never be a bad thing. Thanks to the folks at Pemberley.com, you can see set photos of Romula Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. And there’s a video slide show of the filming in Kent on YouTube.
  • After having fun with the popular and highly regarded “Bride and Prejudice,” Bollywood is tackling “Ayesha,” the Indian equivalent of “Emma.” “Slumdog Millionaire” star Anil Kapoor is producing, and his daughter, Sonam Kapoor, plays the title role and Abhay Deol is her Mr. Knightley.

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