by Cathleen Myers
1995/96 has certainly been the year of Jane Austen. Film versions of three Austen’s novels (Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and, most recently, Pride and Prejudice) were released in 1995 alone; Clueless, the notorious Emma update, was a surprising hit; and a more literal version of Emma is scheduled for release later this year.
But not even the two wonderful recent adaptations of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility (with its well-deserved Academy Award nominations) prepared us for the new three-part BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (directed by Simon Langton), recently shown on A&E - six hours of sheer heaven, now available on video.
While the recent film versions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility prove that Jane Austen’s novels do work on the big screen, her particular blend of romance and delicious irony really work best in a small screen mini-series format, where we really have time to savor the characters, the satire, the irony and the matchlessly witty dialogue. The greatest problem with screen adaptations of Austen’s novels is that the screenplay tends to concentrate on the romance and to ignore the irony and wit. But in Langton’s Pride and Prejudice much of the ironic wit of Jane Austen’s dialogue and narration survives intact - along with the most romantic "realistic" love story ever written.
Elizabeth Bennett (Jennifer Ehle ) has a wonderfully expressive face and a deliciously wicked wit; in this production she’s very much her father’s daughter, ironically leading fools and rogues on with a straight face - and watching with relish as they make fools of themselves. Her later conversations with Wickham and Mr. Collins are worthy of Mr. Bennett himself.
Colin Firth is a reserved but dangerous and sexually magnetic Darcy - quite a Byronic characterization. We see him fencing like Basil Rathbone ("I will conquer this" he murmurs to himself), intimidating Wickham with a glance, and forcing a door open that the infamous governess Mrs. Young tries to shut in his face. This is not a man to cross. And his verbal duels with Elizabeth are electric.
And, for once, almost everyone seems well-cast. Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter) has more charm and more backbone than one usually sees (He’s furious with Darcy when he learns of the intrigue to separate him from Jane). Jane herself (Susannah Harker) looks like a touchingly vulnerable Helen of Troy. Not inappropriately, Mr. Collins resembles Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder in both appearance and manner. The Gardiners are very convincing as a genteel middle class couple with far more refinement than most of the gentry in the story. Masterpiece Theatre viewers will recognize former ingenue Joanna David playing a youthful Mrs. Gardener with real rapport with her favorite niece Elizabeth. The really pleasant surprise is Lydia (Julia Sawalha, better known as Saffie from Absolutely Fabulous) who, for once, is played exactly as Jane Austen wrote her - as a voluptuous teenager keenly enjoying her own seduction.
A few miscalculations in casting: Mrs. Bennett’s lines are hilarious, no matter who says them, but this one is very broadly played (Mr. Alan Winston suggested, only half-seriously, that Jennifer Saunders of AbFab would have made a more effective Mrs. Bennett "Enjoy yourself in Brighton, sweetie darling."). Georgiana looks much too fragile to be a Darcy while Lady Catherine looks and acts more like one of Bertie Wooster’s nagging aunts than like the daughter of England’s most blue-blooded earl.
But this is mere carping. The fact that nearly everyone involved in the production is a self-confessed Austen fan is obvious. Andrew Davies’ faithful screenplay uses much of Jane Austen’s dialogue and producer Sue Birtwhistle (his former English student!) is meticulous in her attention to period detail. The Derbyshire countryside scenes are lovely and the mansion chosen for Pemberley is appropriately magnificent. For a refreshing change, most of the costumes seem exactly right for the characters and no one is over-dressed (Remember the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier film version where the Bennett girls always looked like 1830’s fashion plates, even in the country?). Dance historians will be delighted at the production’s use of real English country dances and tunes from the late 18th century in the many dance scenes. Elizabeth and Darcy look so graceful executing their pas de boureé step while verbally sparring in "Easter Thursday" that one can almost forgive the inaccuracy of the choreography (In reality, in Jane Austen’s time only the first couple is active at the beginning of the dance!).
A few historical inaccuracies: Elizabeth and Mr. Collins should not have been first couple in the opening dance of Mr. Bingley’s ball. That honor of opening the ball belongs to the lady of highest precedence in the room who chooses to dance (In this case, probably Charlotte Lucas, the eldest daughter of a knight), and Elizabeth would never stand above her beloved elder sister Jane in an opening dance. The lovely country dance music and "incidental" party music is all period, but the bluestocking Mary would not have needed to bring her sheet music nor would the Italian songs have been sung in translation.
But one of the delights of the production are the evening party scenes in which we see, clearly, how much fun the guests have - without videos, CD’s or TV - in entertaining themselves.
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