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By far the most successful adaptation in the Masterpiece series: The Complete Jane Austen, the 1995 film of Pride and Prejudice is lively, modern, and visually stunning.
Producer Sue Birtwistle and writer Andrew Davies had six hours to develop the characters and capture the humor. They had the budget for beautiful costumes and multiple locations; they filmed at four National Trust properties and Luckington Court, the perfect house for Longbourne. I admit I am a fan of this film. I bought The Making of Pride and Prejudice (Penguin Books 1995), have poured over maps, and plan someday to visit Lackock village, Wiltshire, the film’s Meryton. I enjoy the dancing and gave the piano score to my daughter. I have long admired the actors. The three lead roles among the Bennet sisters—Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle), Jane (Susannah Harker) and Lydia (Julia Sawalha)—are well balanced in demeanor from Elizabeth’s teasing tone and love of walking, to Jane’s serene smile and sedate ways, to Lydia’s shouts and boisterous behavior. The eligible bachelors are cast to highlight their differences, especially between the tall, dark, handsome and reserved Fitzwilliam Darcy (Colin Firth), and his cute, cheerful, outgoing friend, Charles Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter).
PBS has been conducting an online poll of Austen’s most popular hero. No surprises here. Fitzwilliam Darcy places first with Colin Firth inhabiting the much-expanded role. His Darcy is athletic—riding, fencing, swimming. At the assembly ball where his rude comments inspire ridicule, Darcy seems haughty but vulnerable and shy. Darcy’s glances are important, especially the looks exchanged with Elizabeth at Pemberly. Romance that is subtle in the novel is visible in the film.
But my pleasure in returning to this adaptation is to see the wonderful comic characters and hear so much of Austen’s text. Perhaps my favorite among the fools is Mr. Collins (David Bamber). Every gesture, posture, and sniveling word demonstrates the character Austen describes as “a mixture of pride and obsequiousness.” Small gestures work well in the ensemble; Mary Bennet (Lucy Briers) steps forward when Collins says he will invite one of his cousins for the first two dances, but steps back when Elizabeth is asked instead. Darcy almost laughs aloud when Collins goes the wrong way in the dance, but Elizabeth’s angry glance stops the mocking. When Mr. Bennet (Benjamin Whitrow) stops Mary from performing a second song at the ball, he speaks Austen’s lines with emphasis on the consonants that highlights the irony. Even when Austen’s lines are used in new situations, the words fit the scene. Elizabeth’s recital of the narrator’s opening line echoes Mr. Bennet’s ironic response to the arrival of strangers into the neighborhood. Austen’s words are used to dramatic effect. Darcy’s letter is incorporated into the action in part because we watch Darcy writing and Elizabeth reading, but also because we both hear their voices and glimpse scenes to which the letter refers. Overall, the film is satisfying to watch and true to the spirit of Jane Austen.
--Natalie Goldberg, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2008