Jane Austen movie mania is so pervasive you can't be blamed for picturing your favorite Austen heroine not from the page but from the screen. But how do you like your Emma—fair as Gwyneth Paltrow or dark, like Kate Beckinsale? Do you prefer your Elizabeth Bennet as Keira Knightley or Jennifer Ehle? When it comes to dreamy Mr. Darcy, no actor can match Colin Firth, except perhaps Mr. Firth himself, who later reprised the role—sort of—when he played the aloof barrister Mark Darcy in "Bridget Jones's Diary," the modern-day romp based on "Pride and Prejudice." Why viewers are drawn to films and TV movies about plucky young women in Regency England isn't hard to understand: Austen's novels, at base, are about love and money. Embroider those topics with scenes of gossip, flirting, social navigation, betrayals, puzzlement, romance and heartbreak—and swap the sprigged-muslin frocks for Prada—and you practically have "Sex and the City." Even the voice-overs in many of these films could be Carrie Bradshaw tapping on her laptop. Only much better written.
The latest Austen spree starts this week on PBS, as "Masterpiece Theatre" launches "The Complete Jane Austen," a 10-week series of films based on all six novels. The marathon includes the Beckinsale "Emma" (1997) and the Ehle/Firth "Pride and Prejudice" (1995), but the other four are new. They have all the ingredients we've come to expect: lyrical landscapes and opulent country houses; star-crossed lovers tripped up by snobs, fools or connivers. But these new films also point to the perils of translating Austen to the screen. What makes the books so satisfying to read—and re-read—are the intricate tapestries of Austen's richly drawn characters, delicious wit and sharp satire. Those aren't easy qualities to capture on film.
"Persuasion," the first PBS movie, was Austen's last novel, and the film succeeds in capturing its melancholy tone. The strong heroine, Anne Elliot, regrets her rejection of the handsome Captain Wentworth years before—feelings that are painfully rekindled when they meet again. Yet almost too much of the movie, reducing the book to 90 minutes, focuses on a sober Anne and stone-faced Wentworth, both failing to speak their hearts. "Northanger Abbey," Austen's first book and her weakest, has rarely been filmed. A bemused critique of the early 1800s fad for Gothic romances, the movie depicts young Catherine Morland's feverish imaginings as she reads tales of intrigue and ravishment. She's so caught up in their silliness that her judgment is affected—and all the pretty production values of the film don't make it any less silly. More complex is "Mansfield Park," about Fanny Price, a poor relation brought as a child to live on the estate of her uncle Lord Bertram. The new film lays out the distinctions in social strata, not only by clothing Fanny as drably as Cinderella but by giving her a hairdo that makes her look like Courtney Love. There are a number of fine performances here—especially Blake Ritson as her beloved cousin Edmund—but unfortunately, Billie Piper as Fanny, who is at the heart of the story, fails to captivate.
What trumps these three Austen adaptations is the series' bonus, "Miss Austen Regrets," a surprisingly good fictionalized biography. Beautifully acted—especially by Olivia Williams in the title role—it focuses on the last years of Austen's life and displays a richness and wit often missing from the new films. Austen's novels always end with a wedding, but this biopic opens with one, where the spinster Austen is a guest. As the happy couple—her niece and her bridegroom—burst out of a picturesque country church, they pass among the gravestones. The shadow of death isn't far in this autumnal tale as it explores the question: did the author who wrote so magically of true love regret never marrying? "This is the real world," Austen tells another niece. "The only way to get a man like Mr. Darcy is to make him up!" Yet middle-aged Miss Austen still loves to dance, to flirt ("I'm still a cat when I see a mouse," she says) and, most of all, to match wits. She's had some literary success, but she and her family, like many of her well-bred characters, suffer financial misfortune. As her novels do, this film points up the precarious position of women who lived outside the security of marriage to a man of means. The house she shares with her mother and sister resembles that in "Sense and Sensibility," which will be the final PBS film. You may wonder how this new version compares with the first-rate 1995 Ang Lee-Emma Thompson movie. Then again, comparing competing Austen films has become half the fun.
A guide to keeping up with the Austen marathon:
'Persuasion': Based on Austen's melancholy last novel, the film stars Sally Hawkins as the steadfast Anne. Premieres Jan. 13.
'Northanger Abbey': Austen's first book skewers the Gothic romances popular in her day. Starring Felicity Jones. Jan. 20.
'Mansfield Park': The fortunes of young Fanny Price (Billie Piper), a poor relation of the noble Bertrams. Jan. 27.
'Pride and Prejudice': A repeat of the acclaimed 1995 BBC film with the incomparable Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Feb. 10.
'Emma': Kate Beckinsale starred in this 1997 television production as Austen's strong-headed matchmaker. March 23.
'Sense and Sensibility': A new two-part film about the well-bred but poor Dashwood sisters and their suitors. March 30.