Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
The TV Series:
Of all the filmed versions of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 BBC-A&E television production seems to be the one that people (especially women) keep returning to again and again. Why is that? True, many Austen fans prize this particular adaptation for it's fidelity to the source material. A straightforward filming of the novel would be full of flowery dialogue and stagy indoor scenes, however (a lot like the BBC's opulent 1980 version - which has its own vintage Masterpiece Theater charm). Other than perfect timing (it came as part of the '90s Austen mini-revival), the real reason for this grand production's popularity lies in how it does everything in the book bigger. Headed by soaking-wet Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and a coquettish Jennifer Ehle as our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, this marathon 322-minute-long Pride and Prejudice is nothing less than Austen Supersized.
Watching it with fresh eyes, having just read the novel, there are a number of notable things about this Pride and Prejudice: a sense of Austen's keen observational skills, smart casting, lush production values that recreate Regency-era England (in that respect, it feels a lot like a Merchant-Ivory film), and a longer running time that allows for fleshing out of characters and story embellishments. Of course, the most famous of these not-in-the-book is Firth's famous dip in the pond at his lush estate, yet it works within the context of the episode it's in. Unexpected as these changes are, the additions never come across as unnecessary, however. The essence of Austen's story remains front and center, an incisive romantic drama centered upon on Elizabeth Bennett (Ehle) - too obsessed with the mechanics of love and marriage to notice when it affects herself - and the constant object of her scrutiny, haughty Mr. Darcy (Firth).
The miniseries paints a vivid picture of the Bennett family and their five diverse daughters - sensible Elizabeth, beautiful Jane (Susannah Harker), dour Mary (Lucy Briers), lusty, irresponsible Lydia (Julia Sawahla) and rambunctious Kitty (Polly Maberly). The Bennetts are upper-class but not filthy-rich country dwellers in desperate need of a male heir so that their estate will stay intact. Spearheaded by the flighty Mrs. Bennett (Alison Steadman) and her more practical yet no-less-manipulative spouse (Benjamin Whitrow), the seach for a husband for one of the girls. They have their best shot with the sensible, docile Jane, who is smitten with an affable, wealthy visitor from London, Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter). Bingley is taken by Jane as well, despite the chorus of disapproval of his sister and their snob clique - Darcy included. The Jane/Bingley matchup is eventually foiled, however, leading Elizabeth to believe it was Darcy's doing. Although a lot of other things happen in Pride and Prejudice, that social injustice is the catalyst for Austen's indelible dance of repulsion/fascination between Elizabeth and Darcy. Opinions may vary, but I'd say that Firth and Ehle are some of the better actors to have undertaken these iconic characters. Resembling a young Meryl Streep, Ehle conveys Elizabeth's self-superiority in a compassionate way, while also gracing the character with maturity and depth (contrast that with Kiera Knightley's girlish, impulsive Lizzie from the 2008 feature film). The dreamy Firth brings considerable shading to a character who is essentially a standoffish, brooding snob in the book's first half, although personally I found him somewhat less magnetic than Laurence Olivier in the 1940 film.
If anything, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice gives Austen a new robustness - taking the story outside whenever possible, beefing up a lot of underwritten characters (particularly the men), layering on the period frou-frou with thoughtful accuracy. Many of the characters who were somewhat vague in the book become full-fledged beings here, including David Bamber's obsequious Mr. Collins and the devious Wickham, played by Adrian Lukas. The most surprising characterization comes with the most gossipy of the Bennett sisters, Lydia. As done by Julia Sawahla (Saffron from Absolutely Fabulous), she become sort of a British Nellie Oleson - the unrepentant brat that you love to hate.
Another thing accounting for Pride's longevity: home video. Lionsgate's Keepsake Edition is the third release of this title in Blu Ray format alone. Like the novel it comes from, apparently oodles of people yearn to revisit Elizabeth, Darcy, and the lush green hills of Pemberly over and over again.
The first BBC production entirely shot on film, Pride and Prejudice used Super 16mm stock with a 1.67:1 aspect ratio. Lionsgate's Blu Ray release sports a handsomely done transfer, although the picture has been cropped slightly on the top and bottom to fill out a 16x9 widescreen format. Windowboxing would have been preferred, but as it is the picture is pleasantly warm and inviting (for those who own A&E's 2010 Blu Ray, this is the same restored image used there). Although the picture doesn't have the fidelity of 35mm-shot films of the era, the high-definition mastering brings out the photography's appealing color and texture.
Considering the age of the source material, the DTS Surround mix winds up sounding agreeably full; dialogue has a nice dynamic range and the mixing on the music is thankfully non-intrusive. Surround effects are kept to a minimum. English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The addition of four new featurettes (and the annoying presence of auto-play previews on the first disc) is the only thing that distinguishes this Keepsake Edition from the Pride and Prejudice Blu put out by A&E Home Video in 2010. These well-produced, interesting supplements offer some new insights from Austen historians, director Simon Langton, screenwriter Andrew Davies, and several of the actors (although Ehle and Firth are absent).
- The Definitive Pride and Prejudice (21:25).
- Love or Money? Courtship and Marriage in Pride and Prejudice (10:01).
- The Music of Pride and Prejudice (9:57).
- Lifestyles of the Wealthy in Early 19th Century England (8:38).
Other featurettes are retained from earlier home video editions. Presented in standard-def widescreen, they are:
- Pride and Prejudice: A Turning Point for Period Drama (31:12).
- Technical Restoration (5:30).
- Lasting Impressions (59:36).
- An Impromptu Walkabout with Adrian Lukis and Lucy Briers (9:46).
A selection of Previews, which are done as one long program with chapter stops, rounds out the extras.
The miniseries that inspired a million lady-crushes, 1995's Pride and Prejudice brought Jane Austen's classic novel to life with lush production values and a star-making performance from Colin Firth as the imperious (and wet) Mr. Darcy. Timed to Valentine's Day, the Keepsake Edition Blu Ray from Lionsgate adds about an hour's worth of bonus featurettes to the restored edition from 2010. Whether it's worth the upgrade depends upon how much of an Austen freak you are, although the the package itself is as handsomely done as the series itself. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.