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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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, 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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George Knightley, Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Knightley, as portrayed by Jeremy Northam

Mr. Knightley, as portrayed by Jeremy Northam

Mr. Darcy may steal more women’s hearts, but Mr. Knightley, the romantic hero of Emma, surely ranks as one of the most appealing of Jane Austen’s male characters. Austen describes him as “sensible,” “cheerful,” and a man who has “nothing of ceremony about him.” He’s a bit of a tease. He smiles a lot. He’s sociable, although he enjoys living alone at Donwell Abbey. He can be a bit peevish at times, especially when he’s suffering from jealousy, but that just proves he’s human.

Mr. Knightley is honest. He never hesitates to tell Emma the truth, especially about her misguided attempts to meddle in others’ affairs: “He was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.” At one point late in the novel, Emma assures him that his guidance has benefited her.
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