TV Preview: 'Emma' will delight Masterpiece Classic viewers

A 'CLASSIC'? Michael Gambon and Romola Garai star in "Emma," which had a tepid reception in Britain but now gets a chance in the U.S.
A 'CLASSIC'? Michael Gambon and Romola Garai star in "Emma," which had a tepid reception in Britain but now gets a chance in the U.S. (Ed Miller - ©BBC)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

The original musical opening to PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre," by the 18th-century French composer Jean-Joseph Mouret, is a stately theme for trumpets and percussion that suggested a formal march of peruked dandies in high heels. That has given way, these days, to a new theme for full orchestra that references the first notes of the Mouret tune, then blathers on in generic Hollywood soundtrack fashion.

One might expect the long-standing television franchise (next year marks Masterpiece's 40th anniversary) to have similarly degenerated. But what has now been rebranded "Masterpiece Classic" remains remarkably strong, especially when it stays close to its unfashionable, anglophile fixations -- period dress, proper accents, class snobbery -- churning its way through the great, plot-dense novels of the 19th century.

Next up, Jane Austen's "Emma." It's been done before on TV and the big screen, including two film versions in 1996, a modern teeny-bopper update called "Clueless" in 1995 and a BBC miniseries in 1972 (along with several earlier efforts). But "Emma," one of Austen's last novels and one of her most challenging, offers endless fodder. If you're tired of Emma -- the rich, witty and narcissistic meddler in other people's affairs -- you're tired of the world.

The current version, starring Romola Garai in the title role, didn't fare very well when first seen in the United Kingdom in the fall. The Daily Mail diagnosed "a case of Emma fatigue," and the Independent asked (ominously), "Has the costume drama had its day?" One critic found, among other faults, the following distractions: flowers blooming at the wrong time of year, a misquote of Milton and an inappropriate "south-London" accent coming from the over-wide mouth cavity of Garai. Her gait was also problematic.

And yet, for all that and its sometimes slow pace, this "Emma" is a delight. The costume drama might be subject to the most merciless scrutiny, but that, in a way, is a mark of its lingering status. The occasional anachronisms of "Emma" are a bit like those points divers or gymnasts lose for doing things mostly imperceptible to any human eye not trained in the minutiae of the sport.

"Emma" comes fast on the heels of "Cranford" and "Return to Cranford," which kept "Masterpiece" fans sated through the holidays and well into this month with a very free adaptation of the novels of Mrs. Gaskell. "Emma," which begins Sunday evening (with a two-hour installment) and continues with two more hour-long episodes over the next few weeks, makes a good companion piece to the "Cranford" series, not just because both are adapted from the writing of women and deal with the mores and small dramas of small-town English life, but because they manage to entertain even as they infuriate.

Like so many of the series inspired by the manic content providers of the 19th century (Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontes), they are both examples of the triumph of craft over vision. As history and as literature, they get as much wrong as they get right (and far worse things than daffodils out of season or Milton mangling). But they work because they're an increasingly rare thing on broadcast TV: well-acted dramas.

Reality TV, which is often explained in financial terms (it's cheaper to produce than scripted drama), has made "Masterpiece" look better than it ever has. The economic explanation isn't just a matter of the bottom line in the network budget. The problem with reality TV is that its characters are poorly capitalized. There simply isn't enough background, drama or depth invested in them to make their conflicts interesting.

If nothing else, the arcs of time over which series such as "Cranford" or "Emma" transpire empower their actors. As the aging spinster Miss Matty, Judi Dench gave a solid B-plus performance in the two series based on "Cranford." But there is so much pure professional in Dench that when her interpretation is stretched over eight hours, it begins to seem like genius.

Garai, whose mannerisms are without a doubt anachronistically over-animated for a member of the English gentry, also knows how to build a character (or rather unbuild it) with the slow accumulation of wisdom and self-revelation. The 21-year-old Emma, Austen tells us, has everything: She is "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition," and she "seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence." Emma has everything, except an accurate sense of her estimable self-worth and the value placed upon her opinion by those less fortunate. Garai, rather magically, manages to reveal Emma's charms, and her weaknesses, without losing the viewer's sympathy or interest -- but it is a long process.

As her friend and sometime scold, the Mr. Knightley of Jonny Lee Miller keeps enough in reserve over the four-hour drama that it is genuinely thrilling when we see his power over Emma's conscience in the last episode -- proof that a single raised voice can have shattering power if the producers and actors are committed to the discipline of long-form pacing.

These series are also a last and welcome refuge for the delights of character acting, which is a very different thing than the caricature acting that defines most small and comic roles elsewhere on TV. Without her bores, boors and preening twits, Austen's fiction would be the stuff of Hallmark cards. But few of her bores, boors and preening twits are utterly irredeemable, which makes them a major challenge. And so Emma's father, a fussing and fretting waste of skin played to delicious limits by Michael Gambon (far surpassing his appearances as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series), emerges as a damaged man, not a repellent one.

Even when the directors and screenwriters are guilty of heinous crimes against literature, the gambols of great character actors can redeem a costume drama. The adaptation of "Cranford" squandered the pure radicality of Mrs. Gaskell's vision by introducing traditional romantic narratives into a novel that was quilted together from gossip and trivia into a rare vision of what it meant to inhabit an entirely feminine world in the 19th century. But it also gave free rein to the character instincts of Imelda Staunton as the indefatigably snoopy Miss Pole and the daffiness of Julia McKenzie's Mrs. Forrester. Mrs. Gaskell would roll in her grave, but she'd still recognize the women she called her Amazons.

The curious thing about the persistence of quality on "Masterpiece" is you sense how badly PBS would like to ruin it. The introductions, by Laura Linney, are the most ridiculous twaddle about real people and real feelings, as if Austen wrote in Sanskrit about Martians. Hovering over the series is the manic fear that somehow the public is too stupid to understand Austen's characters on their own terms. Hence, on the PBS Web site, "Emma" screenwriter Sandy Welch reassures us of something that, if true, would reduce the miniseries to irrelevancy: "They think in the same way we do, and they act in the same way."

Fortunately, the product suggests that the people who make these dramas don't believe this. Of course Austen's characters don't think and act like we do. They are obsessed with details of dress, decorum, class and propriety for which there is no contemporary analogue. Which is why we read Austen. And for now, why we watch, too.

Emma: Airs on PBS at 9 p.m. Sunday (two hours) and continues with hour-long installments on the next two Sundays.

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