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THE B-LIST: The best Austen adaptations to watch with Mom this weekend

The best Austen adaptations to watch with Mom this weekend

My mum may not share my love for gory horror, cats or outrageous action flicks, but we both agree that a well-done historical romance always goes down a treat. It's one of the girliest things we share: a love for atmospheric, ivy-covered country houses awash with suppressed emotion and tight cravats.

Societal pressures? Exciting. Outspoken, well-dressed ladies? A must. Fraught moments where the characters' hands brush ever so slightly? Delicious.

We love the Gothic Brontë sisters and Daphne du Maurier, but few have done romance, strong heroines and social commentary with quite the panache of Jane Austen. When fresh batches of adaptations inevitably come around every seven years, we watch them all on PBS or DVD.

Since Sunday is Mother's Day, there's no better time to schedule a movie marathon with Mom and watch the very best Austen adaptations to date, starting with:

5. "NORTHANGER ABBEY" (2007). Avid reader Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) has an imagination that runs away from her when she meets the Tilney family, owners of the Gothic Northanger Abbey. While the sweet and steady Henry Tilney (JJ Feild) quickly falls for Catherine and her brother falls for the flighty Isabella (Carey Mulligan), issues of money and the heroine's morbid fancies could spell disaster...

Austen was clearly lampooning overwrought Gothic novels like Matthew Lewis' "The Monk" with "Northanger," which is a straightforward romance except for Catherine's elaborate fantasies. The 2007 adaptation is my favorite thanks to the cast: Jones is perfectly wide-eyed as Catherine, while Feild is a charming and lovable goof as the kind, helpful Henry.

4. "PERSUASION" (1995). Seven years ago, the wealthy Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) turned down the proposal of the clever but penniless sailor Frederick Wentworth (Ciarán Hinds). Now a poor spinster thanks to her father's excesses, she's resigned to a life of drudgery when Wentworth returns, now a wealthy and highly eligible captain after proving himself at sea. Does he still love her, and can he look past her previous mistake and current poverty — or did she already throw away her chance for happiness?

"Persuasion" was the last complete novel Austen wrote, and it's more mature and somber than her previous stories. A spinster herself, Austen clearly empathized greatly with Anne. What I love the most about this take is that both Root and Hinds look like people who have lived hard lives — Root is plain, while Hinds is brooding and vulnerable. It's nice seeing average-looking people getting an emotional romance that's usually reserved for extremely pretty 20-somethings.

3. "SENSE AND SENSIBILITY" (1995). Sensible Elinor (Emma Thompson) and emotional Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) are left poor when their father dies and his estate falls to their cold half-brother. Moving to a country cottage, the sisters find love and disappointment when Elinor falls for the quiet Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and Marianne is left heartbroken by the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise) while the noble Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) pines for her from afar.

Thompson didn't just star as Elinor — she also wrote the screenplay, which won a well-deserved Oscar. Beautifully directed by Ang Lee and full of sweeping shots of the idyllic English countryside, this version of "Sense" places the relationship between the sisters first in importance, the romances second. Thompson is superb as the enduring, stoic Elinor while Winslet is a rosy-cheeked and foolish Marianne; but the greatest performance belongs to Rickman as Brandon, who steals every scene he's in and pines harder than a dang forest.

2. "EMMA" (2009 miniseries). Teenaged Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai) has lived an exceedingly charmed life. Wealthy, pretty, smart and doted on by her father, governess and sister, she delights in arranging other people's lives. Unfortunately, she doesn't know when to stop meddling, and has some hard shocks when she realizes she feels more than friendship for neighbor George Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller) and may have ruined friend Harriet's (Louise Dylan) chance for happiness with her matchmaking.

Emma is a character who can be infuriating with her ignorant confidence and supreme entitlement. But then she is a teenaged girl, which cuts her some slack. Garai is by far the best Emma to date; she makes her a real person — equally frustrating and endearing — while Miller's Knightley is an equally perfect mixture of sarcastic grump and loving tease. No one else has delivered the "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more," line with as much emotion. By the last act of this miniseries, I'm usually a weepy mess, swamped by ALL the emotions.

1. "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" (2005). Sharp-tongued Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) matches wits with the dour Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) as the pair come to terms with their mutual pride and prejudice, the embarrassing Bennet family and Darcy's opinionated great-aunt.

It's Austen's best-known and best-loved story for a reason: in P&P, a man realizes he's been in the wrong and takes actions to make amends rather than simply apologizing. There are few things ladies find sexier in a romantic hero. And yes, I am one of those blasphemers who prefers the Joe Wright adaptation to the Colin Firth miniseries.

This take is just so sumptuous, with utterly gorgeous cinematography, a lovely score and tons of little moments (especially in the Bennet home) that make the characters feel real and vibrant. Knightley is a plucky Elizabeth while Macfadyen shows that Darcy isn't so much a stuck-up rich boy as a socially anxious introvert with a knack for saying the worst thing at the wrong time. "Darcy is an agoraphobic lobster" has become a hilariously apt description online, and watching him come out of his shell while Elizabeth learns to temper her initial impressions is so satisfying.

If you only have time for one Austen adaptation this Sunday with Mom, make it this one.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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