Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has spawned scores of adaptations in various genres through the years, everything from the glossy MGM film of 1940 starring a miscast Greer Garson to the 2005 film starring a somewhat better cast Keira Knightley to a Broadway musical (the 1959 flopola First Impressions--the original title of the novel) to a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride and Prejudice, costarring Lost's Naveen Andrews) to Bridget Jones' Diary to the latest spin off to generate some buzz, the charmingly named new book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Yes, that kind of zombie. And yet topping the fan lists of a lot of Austen aficionados is this lengthy 1995 BBC version featuring a smoldering Colin Firth as Austen's snooty hero Darcy and the lovely Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, the sweet, headstrong girl who finds that being born not so well off, not to mention female, is sometimes a hindrance to her fondest desires. This adaptation, which sought to modernize the emotions if not the content of the piece, is a wonderfully breezy and spritely romp through the mannered world of the early 1800s, but there's one thing that may strike some viewers as surprising and which gives this version its real sparkle: it's remarkably funny.
For anyone who's been living in a cave for most of their lives, Pride and Prejudice is Austen's at times caustic examination of a class structure which consigns those not of noble birth to a life of fewer choices, often imposed on them by those with choices. Austen wraps up the social commentary in one of her standard romantic cloaks, with a long gestating relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, highlighted by Elizabeth's proto-feminist stance that she will marry for love, not for money or privilege. While there's never any real suspense about an ultimate happy ending (isn't it nice when love and money and privilege all intersect?), what sets Pride and Prejudice apart, both generally and in this sterling version, is its attention to the time and tenor of the characters. The Bennet family is one of the most wonderfully realized in English literature, and something that this version illuminates beautifully, dysfunctional warts and all.
What Austen's source material makes subtly clear is that being well-born may provide certain inarguable advantages, but it doesn't guarantee moral superiority. In fact it's the gentrified Mr. Darcy who is the insufferable boor more than once in this piece, despite having a squarely honorable core and what seems to be a very centered moral compass. That still can't help him from not knowing when to keep his usually taciturn mouth shut, which leads to several mishaps, not the least of which is the further delay of the consummation of his romance with Elizabeth.
The Bennets on the other hand, despite their relatively lesser station in life, exhibit some of the same moral failings though perhaps these are at least partially lain at the feet of their "station in life." Mrs. Bennet especially (in a superb performance by Alison Steadman) is about the most unsubtle, conniving and neurotic bundle of nerves imaginable, intent on marrying her five daughters off to the wealthiest suitors she can finagle. The Bennet parents' failings are brought home in two disparate ways--the daughter they tend to ignore, Elizabeth, is the most centered and capable, despite her headstrong tendencies. The one they lavish the most attention on, Lydia (AbFab's Julia Sawalha), is a spoiled brat who makes one poor decision after another. Sound like anyone's family you might know?
Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who has made something of a career of "updating" vaunted classics of yore, sticks to Austen more or less pretty explicitly, with a couple of notable exceptions. The chief of these is one of the main reasons women especially will be flocking to this new HD version in droves--a famous scene in the fourth episode when Firth emerges from a lake dripping wet, with his soaked clothes not exactly leaving much underneath to the imagination. Davies took a little undeserved heat for this scene, and a couple of other fairly minor liberties he took with Austen's source material, but the fact is he hews a very narrow line that utilizes not only the major plot elements of the novel, but a wealth of its original dialogue, while quite subtly at times renovating its emotional subtext to make it more palatable for modern audiences. The fact is the "lake scene" made Firth a worldwide sensation, something that's put to ironic use in the novel Bridget Jones' Diary, an update of Pride and Prejudice, when its title heroine lusts after Firth while watching that scene. Firth, of course, costars in the film version of Bridget in an update of the Darcy role. Art imitating life imitating art, and all that.
This Pride and Prejudice is also visually lovely, with long sweeping views of the gorgeous English countryside, and beautiful location work utilizing some luscious historical properties. Production and costume design are top notch, and the miniseries boasts an effective, ruffled score by Carl Davis. Director Simon Langton gives the proceedings a filmic sweep that is nicely intimate without the high-gloss sheen of the MGM version, for example. These characters seem more real, more nuanced and more faulty than they do in other adaptations.
Pride and Prejudice seems to inspire artists in many disparate idioms to spin their own riffs on the basic material. If you want one of the best realized adaptations that sticks pretty steadfastly to the source material itself, while simultaneously investing it with just the right amount of contemporary flair, this is the version to check out. Firth and Ehle make an unforgettable couple, the entire supporting cast is top notch, and the production itself exhibits a care and craft that is rare in television fare. One correction, however: my wife, who had editing privileges over this review due to her love of this version, would like me to amend my comment above about Firth's Darcy. He's snooty, but sexy.
Note: I've received a couple of emails stating other sites are saying this release has either DD 5.1 or DTS HD-MA 5.1 soundtracks available. All I can tell you is that the product I have right here in my hot little hand states on the case insert (and which I just confirmed again on my PS3) has only a Linear PCM 2.0 audio option. I did it find it odd that the restoration featurette mentions, in a passing and general way, repurposing sound mixes for 5.1 when source elements are available.
Note 2: On April 2, I received confirmation from A&E's Vice President of Home Entertainment that this BD release only features a PCM 2.0 soundtrack, per my original review.