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TV Reviews

"Emma Woodhouse was born with the sun shining—to a father who always expected the worst. One day the worst did happen." Definitely a clever opening line, but does it really top Jane Austen's: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Not for this viewer, but then, I am one of those Austen purists that has to see a very good reason for tampering with the author’s excellent words, and, even though the narrator reads those opening lines with good effect in the voiceover, the backstory that screenwriter Sandy Welch chooses to give us about Emma, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax (that their mothers died when they were children) seems unnecessary and out of place. One might suppose it’s there for the benefit of viewers who haven’t read the novel, setting up an explanation for the characters’ later behavior, but it distracts from what is, after all, Emma’s story, and takes away some of the mystery.

"I'm not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button on Colin Firth in clingy pants. . . I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and the language and the courtesy. . . the stately, elegant rituals and pace of courtship." These are the sentiments of Amanda Price, feelings which open a portal for her into Longbourne and simultaneously allow Elizabeth to escape into Amanda's modern-day London. So begins Amanda's participation in Pride and Prejudice, unwillingly disrupting the plot and showing characters in a surprising new light.

To begin with an obvious question: How could the same 90-minute span allotted to Northanger Abbey accommodate Mansfield Park, a book twice as long and considerably more complex? A partial answer is: By omitting the Grants and Mr. Yates, as well as Sotherton and Portsmouth and everything associated with them. Instead of dwelling on the evils of these omissions let us judge the new film within its chosen boundaries.

Woe to anyone whose recorder missed the first minutes of the film; that person has paid dearly for choosing to watch the Super Bowl instead. In those first minutes we see Jane’s giddy acceptance of Harris Bigg’s hand in marriage and then Jane and Cassandra’s hasty retreat the next morning. In the carriage Jane silently prays, “Tell me I have done the right thing. Tell me I was right to change my mind. Dear God, let me never regret this day.” What follows is a skillful depiction of the answer to this prayer.

The grand finale of the 3-month-long Austen celebration offers much for commentary—from the casting of the sisters, to the “casting” of Barton Cottage, to Andrew Davies’ adaptation. Davies’ longtime reputation as an adaptor of period novels rests on his ability to forge successful connections between Austen’s novel and a modern audience.

During our family screening of the new Masterpiece version of Northanger Abbey, my 10-year-old snuggled up next to me, shivering, as my astonished spouse stared at me in consternation and exclaimed, “Turn it off!” He was referring to the cuts from the story to the lurid gothic fantasies, filmed in a blue-gray palette and with a florid musical background, that lead the viewers through the mind of Catherine Morland. People who have never read Northanger Abbey are always surprised that it is, in part, a sly commentary on contemporary fiction, its readers and detractors.

Fanny Price may be a tousled romper (see Mansfield Park review). Anne Elliot is a spit-curled sprinter who’d win a foot race against any Austen character. Why she positively flies up and down the sidewalk in Bath when she gets the famous Wentworth “You pierce my soul” letter, handed to her by what seems to be a servant.

By far the most successful adaptation in the Masterpiece series: The Complete Jane Austen, the 1995 film of Pride and Prejudice is lively, modern, and visually stunning.