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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Emma’ takes the time to make the journey

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 23, 2010

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There have been so very many Jane Austen screen adaptations, they sometimes seem indistinct, like one long blur of interchangeable frocks. And some of the adaptations - including too many entries in the recent “Masterpiece Classic’’ all-Austen season - simply rush forward half-heartedly to their happy endings. They seem to have been created solely to cash in on the built-in audience for anything and everything Jane.

But this memorable new three-part “Masterpiece Classic’’ version of “Emma,’’ which premieres tomorrow night at 9, stands out. It’s an irresistibly sunny piece of work, one that takes its time with every step of its heroine’s journey to self-awareness. Written by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon, this “Emma’’ lets us savor each quirky character, each revelation, each misunderstanding, each glorious location. It may be too openly comedic and pretty for purists, who will notice that the characters’ ages are out of synch with the novel, but it will surely please the rest of us.

The story, which was loosely updated in the movie “Clueless,’’ has Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai) taking care of her father (Michael Gambon) now that her sister has married and moved away. But boredom and disconnection from her own emotional needs lead her into trouble, as she begins toying with other people’s romantic lives. She takes a young woman, Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan), under her wing and sets Harriet up with a young preacher, Mr. Elton (Blake Ritson), unaware that Mr. Elton is interested in Emma herself. She directs her arrows at another pair with equally disastrous results, all of which is seen and judged negatively by old family friend Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller).

All of the secondary characters are distinct and richly acted, not least of all Ritson as the impossibly vain and slippery Mr. Elton. But Garai (she was the young adult Briony in “Atonement’’) is the real attraction in this production. At moments she reminded me of Cate Blanchett, and Kate Winslet, and even “Masterpiece Classic’’ host Laura Linney, but then she clearly has her own particular charm and talent.

Picking up where Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale (both in 1996) left off, Garai plays Emma as an intelligent woman with one or two conspicuous blind spots. Garai, though, emphasizes Emma’s likability more than her predecessors; she’s so devoted to her father, and so limited in her experience of the world outside her Highbury home, you want to overlook her manipulations and her snobbery. She has an extremely expressive face, one that betrays her every thought and renders her transparent. While she treats people as objects, we can see that she does so out of ignorance as much as anything more devious.

As Knightley, the man Emma doesn’t know she loves and the man who doesn’t know he loves Emma, Miller is a pleasing counterpart. He projects all the calm and centeredness that she doesn’t, and his expressions of anger are firm but clearly born out of caring. As the miniseries develops across four hours (two tomorrow, then one each following Sunday), Garai and Miller have the time to believably move the relationship from ignorance to knowledge, from an almost brother-sister safety zone to something more impassioned. They appear to appreciate and respect their characters’ journeys as thoroughly as we do.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

EMMA Starring: Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, Jodhi May, Rupert Evans, Louise Dylan, Michael Gambon, Blake Ritson

On: PBS, Ch. 2

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-11