I mentioned in my recent review of the new Blu-ray version of the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice that this literary property has been adapted in an amazing variety of ways over the past century or two. Certainly one of the breeziest, and most certainly easily one of the most enjoyable (especially for enthusiasts of the Colin Firth version), is this delicious made for British television piece, Lost in Austen, a three hour mini-epic that takes Austen's characters and plot and turns it inside out, a la Purple Rose of Cairo or Pleasantville, when one of the book's ardent admirers, one Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), finds herself ensconced in the long ago world of British class and sex-role stereotypes. It's an amazingly clever premise that scenarist Guy Andrews plays with magnificently, managing to give the work, in Amanda's own wide-eyed words, a "post-modern moment" while continually upending the audience's expectations of what's about to happen.
Amanda is an unhappy modern lass living in Hammersmith and putting up with her boorish boyfriend Michael. She regularly loses herself in Austen's tome and is amazed one night to find Austen's heroine Lizzie Bennet playing with the electric light switch in her bathroom. Bennet reveals that a faux door behind the bathtub actually leads to the third floor of the Bennet manse circa the early 1800s. Not quite believing it, Amanda steps through, only to have the door shut unceremoniously behind her, evidently leaving Lizzie to fend off the 21st century by her own devices. Amanda is quickly swept up in the hustle and bustle of the Bennet household, telling Lizzie's parents that their daughter and she have traded places for a while.
What quickly ensues is a sort of fun house mirror version of Pride and Prejudice, where Amanda's presence works something like the Heisenberg Principle, and those being watched begin to act differently. This is such a delightful reimagining of Austen's work that I don't want to spoil any of the wonderful surprises in store for longtime fans of the novel, or indeed any of its adaptations (especially the Firth version, which is referenced explicitly throughout). I will say that a number of unexpected liaisons ensue, as Amanda, ever the 21st century freethinking woman, cuts a fairly wide swath through the mannered men of Austen's England. There are a number of beautiful meta-moments throughout Lost in Austen, where supposedly wicked characters like Wickham are shown to be something quite different, and other, more bland if mildly despicable characters like Collins, turn out to be deplorable in this version. Suffice it to say that Bingley and Jane do not exactly gallop into matrimony, and Darcy's character turns out to be more off-putting than it is in even the "usual" versions.
This is simply nonstop fun all the way, despite its length. Rooper is an amazingly spunky heroine, with some great punchlines along the way. Elliot Cowan makes a near-perfect Darcy, playing off the Firth image with a sly wink, and ultimately finally revealing a little humanity beneath the stolid fašade toward the end of the film. If the last hour or so isn't quite as refreshing as the setup, as Amanda finds herself suddenly back in the modern world searching for Lizzie after Mr. Bennet is injured in a duel (you fans of the novel may get the irony of that scenario), the bulk of Lost in Austen is impeccably imaginative and superbly realized.
In a film full of virtually flawless supporting turns, special mention has to be made of Hugh Bonneville's exceptionally funny Mr. Bennet, Alex Kingston's hysterical (literally and figuratively) Mrs. Bennet, and especially Christina Cole as the calculating Caroline Bingley and Tom Riley as Mr. Wickham, a character quite different from what longtime fans of Pride and Prejudice are going to expect. Production values are quite high in this piece, with Austen's world recreated magnificently and shot extremely well by director Dan Zeff and DP David Higgs. In fact, despite its conceit (or perhaps because of it, since it gives us a modern perspective through which to view it), Lost in Austen is one of the most palpably real recreations of this era, and certainly one of the most emotionally true renditions of Austen's work, albeit with a number of incredible changes.
Any fan of Pride and Prejudice is going to have a ball (at Netherfield or elsewhere) with this extremely winning take on the subject matter. My advice is to watch the BBC version again, especially if you haven't recently, and then dive into Lost in Austen as a sort of palate-cleansing dessert. It's luscious and bittersweet in equal measure and will leave you feeling wonderfully refreshed.
Note: I just received an email from an admirer of this miniseries and this evidently is a very slightly cut version. One of the best gags involves Amanda being asked to sing, and let's just say she doesn't exactly have a classical repertoire at her vocal cords' fingertips, so to speak, launching instead into an iconic 60s pop tune. The song itself is not included in this version, just the priceless reactions from Bingley and Darcy. Frankly I think the scene works perfectly without the audience ever actually hearing Amanda sing--it makes Bingley's punchline all the better. Note 2: On 4/20/2009 I received yet another email from another of our very astute readers pointing out that the original broadcast version had Amanda's ringtone on her cell playing the theme to the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, something that, no doubt due to licensing issues, has been dropped from this version.