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Sunday, March 16

Kate Beckinsale's Emma: Irrepressible, Out-spoken and Engaging

The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her. The Narrator on Emma Woodhouse, Emma, Chapter 1

One week until the airing on Masterpiece Classic of the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, directed by Diarmund Lawrence, (1996) on PBS. This production originally aired in the UK in 1996 and in 1997 in the US with the screenplay written by Andrew Davies who was fresh from his success with the BBC Pride and Prejudice in 1995. Based on Jane Austen’s 1816 novel revolving around the exploits and misapplyments of handsome, clever and rich Emma Woodhouse, who thinks that the calling of her young life is to make matches for the community of Highbury. Her match-making endeavors can be a hit or a complete miss, and are always a source irritation to her neighbor Mr. Knightley (Mark Strong), who is the only person in Highbury capable of letting her know of her blunders.

The film stars Kate Beckinsale (Van Helsing, Pearl Harbor, Aviator) as Emma Woodhouse, the slightly narcissistic, and definitely snobbish Austen heroine that readers and critics have loved to hate for close to two hundred years. When Austen warned her family before the novels publication that she had created "a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.", she was not kidding! But Kate Beckinale’s honest and insightful interpretation of Emma Woodhouse, faults and all, make her so endearingly watchable, that Jane Austen may very well have approved; - wholeheartedly!

Ms. Beckinsale has had a very interesting career and has developed into skilled and accomplished actress. Born in 1973 in London, England, Kate is the daughter of the late comedic actor Richard Beckinsale, and actress Judy Loe. She admits to a troubled childhood, attributed to her popular father’s early death, and people tagging her as his tragic daughter, and not her own person.

Because of her acting roots, she was often asked as a young woman if she would pursue an acting career. It was a natural transition, and an outlet for her creative and troubled teenage years. After struggling in local theater, and losing plum roles such as Cathy in Wuthering Heights to Juliette Binoche, her career breakthrough came in 1992 with Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. Succeeding with her character Hero was important to her. She did not want her to be the usual Shakespearean female wimp. "I don't want to play drippy women", she explained later "because I don't know any".

She continued to pursue new acting roles while studying languages at Oxford University, spending her junior year in Paris. But her acting career soon took over her studies when she won the role of Flora Poste, in the BBC adaptation of author Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, which aired to praise in the UK in 1995, and in the US art cinemas in 1996, surprising its producers by garnering a healthy 5 million dollars in sales, prompting a theatrical release in the UK in 1997.

Continuing on her desire to play strong female heroines, her next role as the irrepressible match-maker Emma Woodhouse in the 1996 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, was an easy transition from Flora in Cold Comfort Farm. Delighted to be offered the part, Beckinsale remarked, "You always identify with the character you play, but I got worried at the end when everyone was saying Emmy was so awful and I couldn't see it! I think she's a fantastic character and completely justified in everything she does given her background, living with her ill father and with no stimulation. No wonder she's interested in other people's sex lives!" Of the three adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, Ms. Beckinsale’s interpretation of Emma Woodhouse is considered by critics and fans as the truest to Jane Austen’s intensions.

In director Walt Stillman’s 1998 indie classic, The Last Days of Disco, Beckinsale stars as Charlotte Pingress, and continues along her path of strong heroines, who like Jane Austen’s Emma, think far too well of themselves, speak their minds without provocation, and dole out advice to friends like players in a card game. Along with a talented young ensemble cast including Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman and Robert Sean Leonard, Beckinsale is part of a group of acerbic, smug, social climbing recent college grads who think that they are “adherents to the disco movement”. They dance the night away in New York clubs; - not for the enjoyment of dance, but to be seen and connect with the right crowd. I am particularly partial to director Walt Stillman, and adore his Metropolitan, which is based on Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. Beckinsale’s performance as Charlotte placed her in my mind as an actress who could excel in anything she set her sights on.

By 2001, Ms. Beckinsale had reached super star status with the release of the mega-budget Pearl Harbor, co-staring Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. She would again portray a strong female with Nurse Lt. Evelyn Johnson, caught in the crossfire of World War II and the affections of two dashing young officers. She was quite well suited for the 1940’s costuming and dialogue; -the perfect glamorous Hollywood image of a brave, beautiful and sexy heroine. A lovely combination of Kate Hepburn, Greer Garson and Ava Gardner.

Her diversity as an actress is revealed in her captivating performance as genteel Vampire hunter and Transylvanian Princess, Anna Valerious, in the 2004 film Van Helsing, co-starring Hugh Jackman. Her physical abilities in the heavy action scenes elevate her to super-hero status, both in character and as an actor, matching her male co-stars in every respect. Next she was back to sizzle and fume as Hollywood bombshell Ava Gardner in The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's long-awaited biopic of Howard Hughes. Attempting to play a famous icon like Gardner is tremendously risky for an actress. You either succeed brilliantly or fail miserably and are laughed at for years. Happily, Ms. Beckinsale’s transformation into Hollywood’s golden age siren is quite remarkable. Though she lacks the physical curves of Miss Gardner, she captured her sultry beauty and dynamic screen presence perfectly. One never doubts for a moment why Howard Hughes’ playboy status was accelerated by his association with her.

Handsome, clever and rich, Kate Beckinsale, like Emma Woodhouse is a woman of her own design; - irrepressible, out-spoken and always engaging.

posted by Laurel Ann, Austenprose


Ms. Place said...

What a fabulous bio of Kate, Laurel Ann. I only wanted to add that Kate has been heavily promoting Snow Angels recently. She's apparently very proud of this coming of age story, which won an award at the Sundance Festival. I loved her turn as Ava Gardner as well.

Laurie Viera Rigler said...

And let's not forget her werewolf-slaying vampire in "Underworld." That's what I call a chameleon. :) Thanks, Laurel Ann, for your tribute to one of my favorite actors and to the perfect Emma Woodhouse.

Dina said...

She is one of my fav actors.