02/17/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
A&E (Sun., Feb. 16, 8 p.m. ET)
Had enough Jane Austen? Ready to move on to Jacqueline Susann? Not so fast. This adaptation is terrific and far superior to the recent Gwyneth Paltrow
film. The key is Kate Beckinsale
. She's just about perfect as Austen's "handsome, clever and rich" young heroine, who insists on playing matchmaker to the citizens of Highbury, only to find repeatedly that she understands nothing of the longings of the human heart. Paltrow played the part with a swanlike haughtiness. Beckinsale is vibrantly girlish and romantic. And she looks smashing in Empire-waist dresses.
Emma, as adapted by Andrew Davies, captures not just Austen's light charm but the pinpricks of her social criticism. Samantha Morton, as the illegitimate Harriet Smith, and Olivia Williams, as Jane Fairfax—who faces a dreary future as a governess—are both affectingly vulnerable. While Emma, secure in her wealth, prattles on about romance, these penniless women know that the town's eligible bachelors will judge them according to the size of their purse. And likely reject them.