The Complete Jane Austen "Emma" by Erica S. Perl
When PBS asked me to write about Emma, my first reaction was to be flattered.
My second reaction was to panic because of how ill-suited to this task I am.
Practically all of my female friends swoon over Jane Austen and Austen-esque fare. Your Merchant Ivories, and all that. Rooms with views. Howards with ends. Not me. Don't get me wrong - I love almost everything on PBS. Except period pieces. Crumpets, corsets, carriages... none are my cup of Nestea.
Put it this way: I prefer South Park to Gosford Park.
Maybe it's because I write books for kids and I devote a lot of my time to thinking like a kid. Some might call my tastes unsophisticated. I prefer to think of them as refreshingly modern. But I'm a grown up. A professional writer, too. Surely, I could give this assignment a chance. Right?
Wrong. The DVD of Emma arrived and sat on my coffee table for days. Weeks, even. From the cover, Kate Bekinsdale smirked at me. What are you going to do? She taunted me. Pretend you watched Emma? Finally, I couldn't take the pressure any longer. I popped in the DVD.
In the first scenes, my hackles were up. Emma's governess was getting married and Emma's father was boo-hooing about this situation. All the women were wearing hats that looked like Easter baskets and Emma's father was sporting a rather elaborate dickie. Everyone was talking in that flowery old-fashioned way I despise. I sighed, resigned to my fate.
It was going to be a long two hours.
And then, something happened. I'm not exactly sure when, but my hackles came down. It might have been when the egotistical, self-satisfied Emma and the absurdly-rich-yet-unpretentious Mr. Knightly swapped their first flirty smile, or it could have been when the gullible Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton) appeared like a vision to the trolling-for-a-DIY-project Emma. All of a sudden, the characters seemed complex, edgy and flawed. In a word: modern. Not in their dress, or manner of speech, of course. But their emotional frankness and sly sense of humor took me by surprise. And hooked me.
For example, throughout the story Emma and Knightly have a real, flirty friendship. Sort of like Carrie and Big on Sex and The City, but without the sex or the city. Emma is self-centered and unconcerned with the potential harm in indulging her whims, and Knightly calls her onto the carpet for it. She repents and transgresses and he busts her every time. Now that's what I like to see.
And then there's that expensively-coiffed cad, Frank Churchill, who briefly out-flirts Knightly until it is revealed that his mischievously malicious murmurings about Jane Fairfax are a carefully concocted crock. And Jane Fairfax herself, who is so believably irritating for being so very, very - irrrr! - reserved. Olivia Williams captures the essence of this enigmatic creature perfectly.
There are so many perfect little moments in here. When Emma's brother-in-law grouses about having to make an obligatory social call on a cold Christmas Eve, he is every man of every era. When the whole cast troops off into a field to have an absurdly formal lunch all fresco and Emma makes the mistake of having sport at the expense of the poor, pathetic Miss Bates, she is every pretty girl who has ever gone Too Far.
I guess that's what got me, in the end. This production is so incredibly well-cast, well-photographed, and well-written that I quickly forgot about the fussy clothes and trappings of the time period. I lost touch with all of that and followed the characters loyally as people - not actors - as if this was some strange time-traveling reality show. When Harriet mourned after she took Emma's advice and gave the kind and earnest Mr. Martin the brush-off, I cringed as if I had suffered her fate myself. When Emma learned the truth about Frank and Jane, I could have reveled in her comeuppance... but I didn't because I had come to care about her. The triumphant conclusion culminating in the harvest supper and dance was so satisfying I went back and watched it again.
Because this was an unusual foray for me, I couldn't be sure whether my newfound appreciation for the thoroughly modern humor and heart of Jane Austen was due to this particular adaptation or not. To find out, I'm planning to re-read Emma (or, perhaps I should say, to read it, since I'm now fairly certain that what I read in tenth grade was not Emma, but was in fact Henry James' Daisy Miller).
And on March 30th, I'm looking forward to watching Sense and Sensibility.