An archival review of Emma 3.
Emma 3: Los Angeles Times Review
Jane Austen and Emma - Women for all seasons
By Nancy Jalasca Randle
Los Angeles Times
Last year 3.7 million viewers watched Pride &Prejudice, making it the highest-rated program in A&E's 12-year history. In England, episodes regularly boasted audiences of more than 11 million. The program won multiple awards, including Best of Festival at Canada's Banff Film Festival. TV Guide and Time magazine both picked it for their 1996 best-of-television lists.
Now comes Jane Austen's Emma (Feb. 16 on A&E), a poignant comedy/drama co-created by the Pride & Prejudice team: writer Andrew Davies (Moll Flanders) and producer Sue Birtwistle (Hotel du Lac). Kate Beckinsale (Cold Comfort Farm) plays the title role of Emma Woodhouse, and Mark Strong (Fever Pitch) gives an inspired performance as romantic hero Mr. Knightley. Birtwistle spent eight years finding a home for Pride & Prejudice. A place for "Emma'' came much more readily. The triumph of the miniseries combined with the box office success of the award-winning feature film adaptations of Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, and Clueless made the producer's television film "my easiest sell ever.''
Worldwide the Jane Austen phenomenon just keeps growing: Contemporary audiences are falling in love with the author who signed her first book, "By a Lady,'' more than 200 years ago.
After Pride & Prejudice aired, thousands of letters poured in to Birtwistle from people of all nationalities, professions and ages. Epistles are still arriving. Some enthusiasts send follow-up notes, complete with photos, to keep the producer abreast of family developments -- like their daughter's Pride & Prejudice wedding. Norway and Sweden have mounted large Jane Austen exhibitions.
This Austen mania simply proves what devotees like Birtwistle always knew: Austen's sensibility is timeless. "Austen asks the big questions,'' the producer observes. "She asks, `How are we going to live our lives?' '' The writer's universal subject matter -- love, marriage, social climbing, money, power -- and her psychological and emotional perceptions are as valid now as they were in Austen's age.
"If she were just writing chocolate-candy-box, ribbon-tied romances between perfect people, we wouldn't be watching them today,'' actor Strong says.
What is it about Austen's stories that make them as relevant in 1997 as they were the day she wrote them? In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Laura Jacobs proposed that Austen is in tune with society's prevailing mantra: Knowledge is power. This is most true in her Emma, in which self-knowledge liberates the heroine, transforming her from a young girl into a woman and bringing her love.
"Emma is about the education of a young girl,'' Strong says. "I think in Jane Austen's mind Knightley is a possible teacher for her. His rebukes are designed to give her knowledge about the way her society works and make her a better person. The characters who do not have self-knowledge -- like the Eltons -- are given their comeuppance.''
All of Austen's main characters share this satisfying pattern of eventually coming to their senses. Birtwistle points out that all the people we identify with end up having learned something about themselves and the world and accepting it. They're not fully matured, but you know they've moved forward.
And yet, Austen never paints them with a single stroke. It is the flaws of her characters that engage us as much as their ability to mature. Their shortcomings mirror our own imperfections. Emma's acts of folly humanize her and allow us to put ourselves in her shoes. "That too,'' Strong says, "is what makes Jane Austen's books endearing over such a long period of time. It is just as true now as it ever was.''
Twenty-three-year-old Beckinsale found she could "easily see eye-to-eye'' with the headstrong heroine she portrays. The actress is representative of contemporary women who see themselves in Austen's willful protagonists.
"I think Emma and Lizzy Bennet are both incredibly strong,'' Birtwistle says. "These women are not afraid to be brighter than the men ... or as strong. Quite often Emma gets it wrong, but she certainly does it with energy and courage. She won't be put down by anybody. And Lizzy, she's completely uncompromising. Those girls have no money. Unless one of them marries well, they'll be destitute when their father dies. And yet, she turns down the richest man in Derbyshire because at that point she thinks she hates him.''
"And they have this huge energy,'' she continues. "Andrew Davies says this is the nearest Jane Austen can get to describing their sexual energy. Elizabeth Bennet walks across the field. She arrives, mud on her petticoat, and she's got this glow. That's why people find them attractive, they have this driving force in them.''
So Austen's heroines provide points of recognition as well as role models to follow. But what is it about her male romantic heroes that inspires women to eagerly canvas the contemporary landscape in quest of a reasonable facsimile?
"There is something universal about these chaps that gets to us,'' Birtwistle agrees. The letters the producer received crossed all age barriers, ranging from a 7-year-old schoolgirl to a 92-year-old woman who penned the postscript: "Mr. Darcy can share my shower any day of the week.''
Mr. Knightley, while less dashing than Mr. Darcy, comes close to being the ideal man. He displays in abundance what all of Austen's heroes ultimately have in common: strength of character.
Honesty is Knightley's consummate virtue, and from that honesty springs the trust that enables Emma to surrender her heart. "Mr. Knightley is the moral center of the book. The clue is given very early on that Knightley is a good man, and he is good for Emma,'' Strong says. "And the fact that he `gets the girl at the end' is Jane Austen's stamp of approval on that kind of man.''
Strong was shooting Fever Pitch with Colin Firth, who portrayed Mr. Darcy, when the news came that he had the Emma part. The actors put their heads together and tried to figure out "why those men engender such a feeling of warmth and love in people. We realized,'' Strong explains, "the characters we admire have one thing in common: They have eyes for only one woman.''
A man with a true heart -- certainly a concept with everlasting appeal. In the world of Jane Austen, that concept brings a romantic resolution in keeping with the overriding effect of her work: a sense of harmony.
"Emma and Knightley complement and harmonize with one another,'' Birtwistle says. There is the psychological harmony that comes of self-knowledge. And there is the aesthetic harmony of a universe beautifully conceived and brought forth.
Little wonder that audiences are bowing down to the lady from Georgian England. Her stories provide the perfect antidote for the discord of the modern world.