Genre: Literary classic
Production company: BBC, 1995
Running time: 310 minutes, plus extras
Producer: Sue Birtwistle
Director: Simon Langton
Teleplay: Andrew Davies
Cast: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, David Bamber, Crispin Bonham Carter, Anna Chancellor, Susannah Harker, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Adrian Lukis, Julia Sawalha, Alison Steadman, Benjamin Whitrow, Christopher Benjamin, Lucy Briers, Joanna David, Lucy Scott, Emilia Fox, Polly Maberly
It is a truth universally acknowledged in the DVD industry that a popular title must be in want of any excuse to be reissued. Thus, the "Pride and Prejudice: 10th Anniversary Limited Collector's Edition."
The 1995 BBC miniseries (broadcast in the U.S. on A&E in early 1996) returns in an enticing oversized cloth-and-cardboard box resembling a hardcover ledger. The miniseries, however, has never really been away; it's been rebroadcast several times over the years and has sold prodigiously on VHS and DVD.
This new edition includes the identical two discs released by A&E Video in 2001, along with a third disc of new extras. Also included is the glossy, 120-page Penguin paperback "The Making of Pride and Prejudice," originally published a decade ago.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) was born into genteel poverty in southeastern England and lived a seemingly quiet life. But due to her father's position as a clergyman, she was exposed to fine society, which she would analyze and poke fun at from the point of view of a somewhat disinterested observer. A writer from age 12, she composed early versions of her novels by her early 20s, but didn't see them published until near the end of her brief life.
Austen set the template for what we now take for granted as the romantic comedy: boy meets girl, they don't get along, then as events come to pass and misunderstanding are overcome, they realize they were meant to be.
Essential to understanding Austen's plots is understanding a practice of the time known as entailment. Women had no legal right to inherit wealth or property from their father. If a family consisted only of daughters, as does the Bennet clan, then upon the father's death, their home would be entailed away, or bequeathed, to the nearest male relative, even if that relative has never met the family. Since young women at a certain level of society were not allowed to work for their own living, it was of paramount importance that they marry well. Love did not necessarily enter into it.
The entailment issue is at the heart of Austen's second novel, "Pride and Prejudice." Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five daughters -- Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia -- learn that a wealthy young bachelor, Charles Bingley, is moving into a mansion near their modest home. The flighty and talkative Mrs. Bennet immediately envisions her eldest girl, Jane, being soon married off to Bingley and then each successive girl wed to whatever rich friends he has, while Mr. Bennet, a more rational person whose patience for his wife has worn thin over the years, takes matters with a large grain of salt.
Invited to a dance party by their new neighbor, the Bennet girls meet Bingley and his even richer friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Bingley and Jane are smitten at first sight of each other, but the haughty Darcy offends Elizabeth and her mother by refusing to dance. The company is beneath him, he tells Bingley, adding that while none of the women present are striking enough to tempt him, he finds Elizabeth "tolerable" -- a comment Elizabeth overhears. The good-humored girl is only slightly offended, but concludes that Darcy, despite being extremely handsome, is too impossibly proud for her anyway.
Meanwhile, the Bennets are visited by a cousin they've never met and who will one day claim their home, the fatuous Rev. Collins. He has come looking for a bride, and, told that the pretty Jane is already spoken for, sets his sights on Elizabeth, who is mortified by his attentions. When she spurns his offer, her mother is irate, her father relieved. (Collins will eventually be accepted by Elizabeth's best friend, Charlotte Lucas, a girl who represents, and even verbalizes, the 18th-century notion of marrying for security, not love.)
Jane is hurt and confused by the recent inattention of Bingley, and Elizabeth discovers that Darcy advised his friend to drop her, which only deepens Elizabeth's bad opinion of Darcy. She becomes interested in a charming militia officer, George Wickham, the son of the late steward to the Darcy family. He tells Elizabeth that Darcy has kept him from the living he was entitled to.
Darcy, who has become more in love with Elizabeth each time they are thrown together, proposes to her. But she refuses, and tells him off to boot. The hurt and confused suitor writes Elizabeth a long letter refuting all her accusations and telling her the dark truth about Wickham's character, and she sees she has misjudged Darcy. During an unintended visit to Darcy's magnificent estate while he is elsewhere, Elizabeth hears nothing but praise for the young man from an elderly caretaker. Elizabeth begins to feel that turning down this second marriage proposal was a grave mistake.
Now events take a more urgent turn. The Rev. Collins' elderly patroness, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whom Collins had mentioned with praise in his every sentence while he was wooing the Bennet girls, storms into the Bennet home. She demands a private meeting with Elizabeth and asks if rumors about a proposal from Darcy are true. The old lady had arranged a marriage between her daughter and Darcy when they were children, and she will not have her long-term plan destroyed. Elizabeth stands up to the superior lady and says she is not marrying Darcy, but refuses to say she never will, which sends the visitor off in a huff.
Elizabeth's nerves are stretched to the limit by news that her youngest sister, the silly Lydia, has run off to elope with George Wickham. But no marriage has taken place -- Wickham simply has seduced Lydia, which confirms to Elizabeth what Darcy had said about Wickham. When Elizabeth tells Darcy what has happened, he becomes flustered and disappears; later Mr. Bennet learns that Darcy has tracked down the couple and saved Lydia's (and the Bennet family's) reputation by forcing a marriage to take place. The stage is now set for a reunion of Jane and Bingley, and for Darcy to make a second proposal to Elizabeth.
This adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" is beloved for good reason. It is wonderfully filmed on authentic locations in the pristine English countryside. Costumes, hair, makeup, carriages and furnishings are splendidly rich. The teleplay contains a great deal of Austen's dialogue verbatim, which would mean little if the actors didn't convey it correctly.
Fortunately, from top to bottom, the cast is superb. Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, while considerably older than her character, wins your heart. A closeup of her as she looks at Darcy at the moment she realizes she loves him is worth the price of admission. And her big confrontational scene with Lady Catherine de Bourgh may be the best written, best acted verbal battle you're likely ever to see.
Colin Firth has all the elements that should go into a proper Darcy: tall, dark and handsome, reserved in manner, but witty when called on to speak. Alison Steadman is an enduring riot as the insufferable Mrs. Bennet.
This new DVD edition presents the identical content as A&E's 2001 version. The program was filmed in 35mm and is offered here in anamorphic 16:9. On standard televisions, there are black bars top and bottom; on wide screen sets, the letterbox image has black bars all around.
As with the earlier DVD, the picture is occasionally a bit overexposed or bleachy (mainly in outdoor scenes), though this may have been an intentional effect, perhaps intended to convey a period far removed from our own.
There are no language options other than the original English soundtrack. The lone audio offering is two-channel Dolby Digital, which is absolutely fine.
One of my DVD players offers the choice of mono left, mono right, mixed mono and stereo. A random sampling of each revealed that certain sound effects, such as closing doors, were audible in one or two options and not the others. The stereo option delivered the best aural experience, especially where soundtrack music was playing.
The main menus on the two program discs are full motion. There are a generous 18 chapter selections per disc.
This miniseries has set more female hearts racing than any other adaptation of Jane Austen's novels, and it will always come first to mind at the mention of Colin Firth's name. His Darcy role became so identified with the actor that Firth played a modern version of him in "Bridget Jones's Diary." In a clever extra on that movie's special edition DVD, Renee Zellweger, in character as Bridget, interviews Firth and continually confuses him with Darcy.
Firth's reticence about the role during the Bridget chat may have been the real thing: He is noticeably absent from this set's most substantial new extra, an hour-long making-of documentary titled "Lasting Impressions." He is interviewed in the book, however, and confesses he had to overcome his own prejudice against Jane Austen. At the time he was offered the "Pride and Prejudice" script, he had read "not a page" of that "girls' stuff." But he picked up the novel and "I was only about five pages in when I was hooked ... I didn't want to go out until it was finished."
Also missing from the new documentary is Jennifer Ehle, who stars as heroine Elizabeth Bennet. But fans will be happy to see Alison Steadman (Mrs. Bennet), Benjamin Whitrow (Mr. Bennet), Adrian Lukis (George Wickham), Crispin Bonham Carter (Bingley), David Bamber (Mr. Collins) and Lucy Briers (Mary Bennet). (Briers, who plays the homely, sullen, piano-playing Bennet sister, has a lot more to say here than her character ever was allowed, and she turns out to be a charmer. She's the daughter, by the way, of Britcom staple Richard Briers.)
All those interviewed, including producer Sue Birtwistle and composer Carl Davis, have (or choose to recall) nothing but fond memories of the 22-week production. All knew that they were making a great piece of television, but none suspected it would go on to become an international phenomenon. (Sadly but predictably, no mention is made of the BBC's previous "Pride and Prejudice," a 1980, shot-on-video production shown on "Masterpiece Theatre." It was less lavish than A&E's show, but to me it remains the best version.)
Among many revelations in the documentary is that, because the story was shot out of sequence, the very major proposal scene between Darcy and Elizabeth, toward which the drama builds over its five hours' running time, was shot on Day Two. "It could have been a disaster," says Birtwistle, who was fearful at the time that Firth and Ehle had had no time to get fully into their roles or to develop a connection to each other. As it turned out, of course, she needn't have worried.
The third disc also has a 2004 episode of A&E's "Biography" series focusing on Austen, featuring various Ph.D.s (mostly women) explaining Austen's undying popularity around the world. Far from the image some (non)readers may have of Austen as a reserved school-marm type, the experts agree that she was funny, vibrant and enjoyed deflating pomposity.
The most unique extra, though, is a 10-minute "Impromptu Walkabout with Adrian Lukis and Lucy Briers," in which the two far-from-famous actors, who shared no screen time in "Pride and Prejudice," return to one of the location houses to reminisce and generally joke around. The ready-for-work actors propose a sequel series to star themselves. "Wickham and Bennet," Briers suggests as a title. "A modern-day cop series," Lukis adds.
This bookshelf-worthy anniversary DVD of A&E's "Pride and Prejudice" has a rabid built-in buyership ready to snatch it up. More casual fans who already have the earlier edition may not feel like buying it again.
While nothing has been added to the main program -- no commentary tracks, no remastered picture -- the new extras are fun and enriching.
The top two stars are absent, but the actors who are interviewed prove to be a funny bunch. Crispin Bonham Carter, whose Bingley is Darcy's ever-polite best friend, gets in a naughty little dig about the difference between his and Colin Firth's pants. Jane Austen would probably chuckle.