Because of their tales of romance, marriage, and society, Jane Austen novels are very cinematic. They work wonderfully for film. The dialogue is often sparkling and witty, and the comedy is still just as fresh some hundred and fifty years later. Emma is considered by many to be Austen’s greatest work. There isn’t much plot in the book, but the attention to psychology that Austen displays in the novel has many critics laud the work. While it may not be as enjoyable as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, it’s more challenging and ultimately a more-satisfying read.
As with many of Austen’s classic works, Emma has been filmed many times, most notably in 1996 by ITV with Kate Beckinsale; in 1995 with Gwenyth Paltrow in the title role; and best of all, in 1995 as Clueless, by director Amy Heckerling, who set the plot in 1990s Beverly Hills, with Alicia Silverstone as the matchmaking heroine.
This adaptation is very faithful to the original source: Emma Woodhouse is a beautiful, intelligent young woman who is very rich and extremely spoiled by her lonely widower father, Mr. Henry Woodhouse. When her beloved governess marries and moves out, Emma sets her eye on poor orphan Harriet Smith, and begins to meddle in her love life with disastrous results. While all this is going on, the dashing Mr. Knightly is a disapproving, but loving, older brother figure who eyes Emma’s matchmaking with stern concern.
As with its other recent adaptations of classics, the BBC manages to keep Emma vital, but at the same time, maintain its intelligence, without cheap modernization. Much of the freshness is due to the casting – most notably Romola Garai, who is a real find as Emma. During the film’s four-episodes, she expertly navigates through the range of emotions and behavior of the mercurial heroine. She’s also a fantastic comedienne with wonderful timing, and the great script by BAFTA-winning Sandy Welch provide the resourceful actress with a lot of opportunity to wring laughter from the effervescent dialogue.
How you like Emma Woodhouse will depend on how much patience you have for her behavior. Similar to Becky Sharpe from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Emma’s a bit of an anti-heroine. The major difference, of course, is Emma’s not evil, and the destruction she causes (which is considerable) can be pared down to her innate goodness, but an indestructible ego. Despite her class snobbery, she’s very compassionate and most-often kind to her social inferiors. But many will be fed up with her behavior and her attitude. Austen, Welch and Garai don’t judge Emma and despite her massive faults, she’s a winning character and one roots for her despite all the social blunders she causes.