A&E;'s 'Emma' too superior to be very good

I'm not sure whether it's her pride, prejudice, self-centered sensibility or lack of common sense, but I found it impossible to like the Emma played by Kate Beckinsale in Jane Austen's "Emma," airing at 8 tomorrow night on the A&E; cable channel.

I'm aware that Emma is a complicated character who is not intended to appeal to everyone -- especially some men. Austen herself once described headstrong Emma Woodhouse as a heroine "no one but myself would like."


But Beckinsale -- whose radiant smile warmed the soul in "Cold Comfort Farm" -- plays Emma too much with a self-satisfied, smug little smirk on her face. As lovely and high-spirited as Beckinsale's Emma can otherwise be, in the end, it is the superior, even cruel, woman of privilege who dominates her depiction and diminishes an otherwise impressive 1996 co-production by A&E; and the BBC.

There certainly is no shortage of talent here. Screenwriter Andrew Davies and producer Sue Birtwistle are the team responsible for last year's acclaimed "Pride and Prejudice" from the BBC and A&E.; Davies' credits seem to include every Brit television production you ever saw and loved: "Mother Love," "Anna Lee," "House of Cards" and "Moll Flanders," to name a few.


In addition to Beckinsale, the acting lineup includes: Mark Strong ("Prime Suspect 3") as Mr. Knightley, Prunella Scales ("Breaking the Code" and "Fawlty Towers") as Miss Bates, and Samantha Morton ("Band of Gold" and "Cracker") as Harriet Smith.

The production values, too, are top of the line -- from Oscar-winning Jenny Beavan's ("A Room With a View" and "Sense and Sensibility") period dresses and gowns to Remi Adefarasin's photography, which allows the camera to savor lush English countrysides and soothing, green gardens. That's the world Emma moves through as she plays misguided matchmaker for the likes of Harriet, Mr. Elton (Dominic Rowan) and Mr. Knightley.

I know that there are narratives within narratives in "Emma," the novel. There's a detective story for those readers trying to figure out whom she will marry. There's a novel of education -- a version of the Bildungsroman -- in terms of what Emma supposedly learns about matters of love, humility and social status.

I also know there is more than one take on Emma. The positive one says she has a first-rate mind that is bored by the quiet life of privilege she lives with her aged hypochondriac of a father (Bernard Hepton), so she turns her attention to arranging marriages. I am aware of the accompanying sociology of gender and marriage in Georgian England, which explains how this was one of the only kinds of activities possible for a woman of Emma's intelligence and class.

The negative take on Emma is that she's a busybody who sees other peoples' lives and loves as playthings with which to amuse herself.

On the printed page, Austen was able to navigate between the two to deliver a character of interest and considerable ambiguity -- a real person you could possibly come to care about as she grew.

But, on the screen, 2 1/2 hours of that Beckinsale smirk is just too, too much of a bad thing.

Pub Date: 2/15/97