‘Emma’ on PBS’ ‘Masterpiece’

Television Critic

So, they have taken that Alicia Silverstone movie “Clueless” and turned it into a miniseries called “Emma,” set in England in the early 1800s, and, what’s more, they’ve issued a novelization by someone named Jane Austen. There is a lot more talking in the book, but it is really quite well done and covers all the major points of the miniseries, which is also excellent. They really capture that original “Clueless” spirit.

Or perhaps I have that backward. Hang on while I Wikipedia that.

Right. Seriously now: Here is “Emma,” based on the 1815 novel by Jane Austen, in a new four-hour adaptation beginning Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece” (flavor: “Classic”). It has been 14 years, I am surprised to learn -- in the way I am always surprised to learn that it has been 14 years since anything -- since the last “Emma” adaptations, the feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and a British television version (seen here on A&E) starring Kate Beckinsale. Broadly speaking, they occupied opposite poles of what might be done with Austen and “a heroine that no one but myself will much like,” the first sweet, the second savory.

The new Emma is Romola Garai, who was recently Cordelia to Ian McKellen’s Lear, and though I cannot even guess where Jane Austen would come down on the choice, she is of the three my favorite, neither a flibbertigibbet nor a bossy boots, but containing the gayness and the seriousness that make her good-hearted but wrongheaded meddling in the romantic lives of those around her forgivable. She is, throughout, a work in progress and makes you feel that progress and its attendant pain. It helps too, that Garai is not willowy but broad-shouldered with strong features -- she has substance, whatever nonsense she gets up to.

As Mr. Knightley, her Jiminy Cricket and slow-to-declare swain, I also like Jonny Lee Miller (lately the star of “Eli Stone”). He’s well-matched to Garai, physically and temperamentally; there is something winningly ordinary in both performances. His Knightley is mature without ever being stodgy, “superior,” to use Austen’s word, but never superheroic, and his exasperation with Emma is always clearly an aspect of his affection.

The screenplay this time is by Sandy Welch, who has adapted Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens, and was a popular choice for this job among people who post on Austen message boards. It seems to me she’s done well by the book, as has director Jim O’Hanlon, whose résumé (including “House of Saddam” and “Shameless”) would not necessarily indicate him for a Regency piece, but he doesn’t overload his storytelling with style and gets a lot of depth into a sunny country comedy not without its clouds and rain.

In a rebuke to a recent trend in adapting the classics, to take them hard and fast -- to modernize them, that is, in the worst way -- this new “Emma” is allowed to take its time, developing atmosphere rather than merely developing plot, and giving space and silence their due.

Even a four-hour “Emma” leaves things out, of course, and should. But Austen, though the social conventions and expectations of her time are not ours, translates exceptionally well into film as understood by citizens of the 20th and 21st centuries: Her books play like languorous screwball comedies, and her characters fall in love the way people always have and for the same sort of reasons, good and bad.