Let us now declare, perhaps wishfully, that Jane Austen be given a break. Not permanent exile from the lusting eyes of filmmakers, but a hiatus, a rest, a chance to sit back and sharpen her nib for the edification of moviegoers in decades to come. It is a propitious time for this pause, because the version of her "Emma" that airs tonight on the Arts and Entertainment Network (8 p.m.) is delightful, and if there is one show-biz maxim Austen might agree with it is this: Leave 'em wanting more.
This is the fourth version of "Emma" to hit the screens recently, if you count the fabulous update "Clueless." The fifth if you count the awful television spinoff of "Clueless." If you include the other recent screen versions of her work ("Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion" and "Pride and Prejudice"), Jane Austen has been responsible for more hit movies than most of the overpaid screenwriters currently working. And it would hardly be impolite to point out that she has been quite dead for nearly 180 years.
This "Emma," at around 100 minutes, has the added virtue of being the shortest of the recent adaptations, and it benefits from its briskness. By contrast, the justly unheralded BBC-TV version now available in video stores is almost three times as long, and the somewhat heralded Gwyneth Paltrow film (the video of which will be out soon) runs about 120 minutes. Created by the same English adapter and producer who gave us "Pride and Prejudice" last year, this "Emma" has all the lovely authenticity of that five-part series without making us feel we have to rearrange our entire lives to enjoy it.
The key to the success of any of these productions is the actress playing Emma. She must be snobbish, nosy, superior, interfering, silly, and occasionally cruel without being a "bossy bitch who plays God," as current adapter Andrew Davies put it. She must make us see the charm of a 21-year-old rich girl with nothing to do besides sketching, gossiping and visiting "the poor" on Tuesdays. Austen herself said that Emma was "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." But she has wit and spirit and charm -- and if you're going to build a movie around her she'd better have quite a bit of the last.
Alicia Silverstone was the perfect spoiled Beverly Hills blonde in "Clueless," and Paltrow was well-liked in the role, partly because she has a long neck that looked swell in Empire line fashions. Doran Godwin was tedious and unappealing in the BBC version, and she is a main reason that that production never rises above the level of a third-rate repertory company in a very dreary city.
But Kate Beckinsale may be the best of all. She looks at home in the dresses, cavernous houses and rolling countryside of Austen's 19th-century England, and yet seems modern in her alertness and in her way of not being intimidated by men. Her Emma gives you the confidence that any mischief she may get into can probably be undone.
Emma's main vehicle for amusement is her interest in matchmaking. Just as Cher in "Clueless" takes up an uncool newcomer to her high school and does a "make-over" on her, including trying to fix her up with the campus hunk, Emma adopts Harriet Smith, the "natural" daughter of an unknown, but possibly well-born father. Cher's make-over is focused on appearance, while Emma is trying to make Harriet into a "gentlewoman" and marry her up to the local pastor, Mr. Elton. She makes Harriet turn down another suitor because he is a farmer, even though, as Harriet says, "they have two parlors, two very good parlors."
But Elton is really smitten with Emma, and on the way home from a dance makes a move. As if! She is shocked, partly at the repugnant thought of him wanting her, and partly because her plans for Harriet are ruined. Mr. Knightley, the handsome brother of Emma's sister's husband, who is 16 years her senior, is quite annoyed with her. Emma and Knightley seem to have an unusual ability to talk to each other frankly.
The plot rambles on, flirtation after flirtation. Is Emma attracted by Frank Churchill? Or is Harriet? Does Mr. Knightley hanker after Jane Fairfax? There are parties and picnics (not all totally faithful to the book, but only the most rigorous Jane-ites will mind), to-ings and fro-ings, and occasional glimpses of those pesky poor. In the end everyone is paired off, and Emma seems about to go off and live happily ever after.
Beckinsale is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Mark Strong as Knightley and Prunella Scales as the chattering spinster Emma unkindly insults. Olivia Williams is impressive as the accomplished and superior Jane Fairfax -- the woman Emma hates most. And Dominic Rowan does not make Mr. Elton too obnoxious to bear, although the same cannot be said about Lucy Robinson as his dreadful bride.
Austen, one literary critic wrote, "is fascinated by the complexities of human relationships." This is what keeps her world alive today -- life is a soap opera, and hers comes with great scenery, beautiful furniture and a chance to laugh at the affected manners of bygone days. Not a loud laugh, of course -- just a quiet, dignified titter. CAPTION: Mark Strong and Kate Beckinsale, the pleasing stars of A&E's "Emma."