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Beautiful, clever, and rich Emma Woodhouse is convinced she is good at matchmaking after her older sister and her governess both marry suitable husbands. No matter that as Mr Knightley drily observes, in reality, she had nothing to do with these relationships. Yet Emma, certain of her talents, plays a dangerous game as she persuades her new friend, the young, pretty and socially inferior Harriet to reject an advantageous marriage proposal to a local farmer in favour of dashing Mr Elton. So begins a story which challenges Emma's naivety, her social preconceptions and her relationship with Knightley. Fresh and funny, this perceptive adaptation, featuring a stellar cast, brings Jane Austen's comic masterpiece to life.
Although Jane Austen's Emma has been adapted for the screen many times before, including for an American version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, this four-part miniseries is the version to begin with. The story of Miss Woodhouse, a matchmaker and meddler whose wit and misdirection need to be carefully acted to match the novel's complex character, is perfectly expressed through Romola Garai's portrayal. Throughout the retelling of this comedic romantic drama, Garai not only conveys Emma's strong-willed sensibility but also manages to update Emma for modern audiences without relinquishing the traditional manners and tastes that Austen fans love in her 1815 historical tale. Each episode, here, opens with a seasonal shot of Hartfield, the estate Emma rules while caring for her loyal and kind but protective father Michael Gambon. Having lost her mother early, Emma feels a bond with two other unfortunate children in Highbury, Frank Churchill Rupert Evans and Jane Fairfax Laura Pyper, whom Emma befriends as they return home from boarding schools abroad.
The dramas that ensue revolve around Emma's attempts to pair lovers, with varied degrees of success. Episode One establishes Emma's curious desire to marry everyone off except herself. John Knightley Johnny Lee Miller, Emma's childhood friend, is constantly by her side, coaching, supporting, and chiding her as she matures into an intelligent, regal young lady. Miller's ability to portray Knightley as the respectable, patient man he is throughout the series also lends this Emma incredible strength. In Episode Two, after Emma's beloved governess, Anne Taylor Jodhi May, moves out to marry, Emma bonds with new girlfriend Harriet Smith Louise Dylan, and from here we begin to see some of Emma's plans backfiring. Part of this series' genius is in how it manages, in keeping with Austen's book, to express deeper love developing between Emma and her true mate while Highbury's daily gossip continues. Though in Episodes Three and Four one weathers some minor emotional upheaval with aging parents, losses of wealth, and illnesses, this story is not tragic and most side plots point toward Emma's final love realization, which does not arrive until the last 20 minutes of the last episode. Settings and costumes enhance the story greatly, and views of the village farmers' market contrast with lavish balls and dinner parties hosted by the Woodhouse family and others to underscore Austen's original emphasis on capturing the preoccupations of upper-class British society in her day. Some scenes, as in Episode One when Knightley and Emma squabble for much too long over whom Harriet should marry, drag on, allowing one to marvel at how much free time these people had to worry about other business besides their own. Still, the romance in Emma is quite powerful and humor throughout makes this series ultimately enchanting. --Trinie Dalton