The durability of Jane Austen’s prose is such that every few years seem to produce a new wide-eyed Emma or another “Pride and Prejudice,” whether needed or not. Enter — stately and sophisticated as ever — “Masterpiece Classic’s” latest “Emma,” a four-hour production PBS will spread across three successive Sundays. Given that the 195-year-old story is fairly well known, the protracted length works against an otherwise solid effort, with Romola Garai (“Atonement”) picking up where Kate Beckinsale, Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone (sorta) left off. If not a match made in heaven, it’s a perfectly adequate pairing.
Tasked with the adaptation, Sandy Welch and director Jim O’Hanlon take advantage of the extra time beyond mere feature length to flesh out aspects of Emma’s story, from a nifty little prologue to use of both an omnipotent narrator and voiceover by Emma herself. This helps certain sequences acquire additional resonance, like the narrator saying Emma realized she was “about to lose something that might never be recovered” as the camera fixes on Garai’s pensive expression.
Once again, Emma is a rich and privileged girl who delights in matchmaking, occasionally yielding unintended consequences. None is more unintended than the turn in her feelings toward long-time friend Mr. Knightley (“Eli Stone’s” Jonny Lee Miller), who regularly scolds her for cavalierly meddling in the lives of others.
The surroundings are as sumptuous as Samuel Sim’s score, and the fine cast includes the always-welcome Michael Gambon as Emma’s fussy father and Louise Dylan in the key role of Harriet Smith, who Emma seeks to take under her wing.
There are moments of magic, such as when Emma and Knightley exchange meaningful glances as they dance, capturing the unexpected sparks passing between them.
Nevertheless, “Emma” plods in places where it should be moving at more of a trot. Garai cuts a fine figure in the title role, and there’s really nothing wrong with this “Emma” that a little slimming down couldn’t fix. As is, it’s surely a classic, but falls short of a “Masterpiece.”