The saying “The best intentions can sometimes go awry” describes perfectly the premise of Jane Austen’s Emma, a BBC Masterpiece Classic production adapted by Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre, North and South), produced by George Ormond, and directed by Jim O’Hanlon.
Emma Woodhouse, the title character of this four-part miniseries, is played with enthusiasm and exuberance by Romola Garai (Atonement, Vanity Fair). She is strong-willed and smart (in her novel, Austen describes Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich”), a child of privilege brought up to be the woman of the house in the English village of Highbury. When her mother dies giving birth to her, her father, Henry Woodhouse (played by the splendid Michael Gambon) is transformed into a melancholy hypochondriac, showing disdain for travel, cake, the seaside, and many other mundane pleasantries.
But Emma’s outlook on life is not hampered by her father’s lot. Matchmaking is what she has decided is her forte. After successfully pairing off her governess with a well-to-do suitor, she casts her eye on Harriet Smith (played by Louise Dylan, Merlin), a socially inferior woman Emma brings into her home for companionship. Emma’s motives are altruistic when she decides that the charming Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson, Mansfield Park) would be a perfect suitor for her new friend. But she doesn’t foresee the disastrous results of her meddling.
Through it all, Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller, Eli Stone, Trainspotting), the brother of Emma’s older sister’s husband, is a voice of reason, a sounding board, and a stalwart friend to this "woman of the house." They are obviously made for one another but neither is up to the task of admitting it. They drift around each other, squabbling and chattering and laughing like the lovers the audience wants so much for them to be. We grow frustrated for their lack of insight, but this is part of the story’s charm.