A Radiant ‘Emma’ Finds Its Purpose

Nope, not dead yet. The homage to Jane Austen in movies and television continues on the A&E; network with “Emma,” Sunday’s swell, nifty rendering of a novel that remains cheery almost throughout, despite its confluence of misunderstandings and miscalculations that lead to fiascoes.

But minor ones, and none irreparable, in this journey to the English countryside of just under two centuries ago for a breezy, feel-good visit with the same genteel, privileged set doted on in last year’s “Emma” on the big screen.

This “Emma” has been adapted for TV by Andrew Davies and produced by Sue Birtwistle (the duo behind 1996’s splendid “Pride and Prejudice” on A&E;). And it’s very nicely and wittily done, indeed, driven by a radiant Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s indulged but thoroughly appealing 21-year-old heroine, who, deep into the story, says in frustration after her constant matchmaking efforts go awry, “I seemed to have been doomed to blindness.”

Not quite, for as Cher does in the movie “Clueless” (which was loosely based on the Austen novel and was transformed this season into an ABC sitcom), Emma ultimately achieves clarity.

But only after some sightless blunders that begin with her attempt to match her innocent young protegee, Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton), with Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan), a handsome local cleric who exploits a “God-given opportunity” while riding in a carriage to throw himself at the astonished Emma.


It seems that Emma has misconstrued Elton’s interest in her as interest in Harriet, who later misconstrues kindness toward her by wealthy landowner George Knightley (Mark Strong) as romantic interest. That misjudgment forces Emma to finally confront her own repressed feelings for the older Knightley, her reproachful critic and the wisest soul in this hierarchy of characters.

The cast is very good. And although Beckinsale hasn’t much romantic chemistry with Strong at a point late in the story when she should have, she is irresistible and more effortless in this role than Gwyneth Paltrow was in the theatrical movie. Her tender bud of an Emma is so endearing a snob and meddler that begrudging her these few mismanaged, if well-intentioned people projects is impossible. Rarely is a character so often likable while being so often wrong.

* “Emma” can be seen at 5 and 9 p.m. Sunday on cable’s A&E.;