One of Jane Austen’s most popular novels, Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for television and film a number of times – most notably in 1940 with Sir Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, in 1995 with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and recently in 2006 with Kiera Knightley. The BBC adaptation with Firth and Ehle is arguable the most popular, running in the United States on A&E. It’s a brilliant production and a text book example of how to make a film from a book well.
For Austen fans, the plot is recognizable, but for the uninitiated a brief (and ridiculously condensed) version of the plot: The Bennett family, headed by Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman) have five unmarried daughters: Jane (Susannah Harker), Elizabeth (Ehle), Mary (Lucy Briers), Kitty (Polly Maberly) and Lydia (Julia Sawalha). Jane, the eldest and most beautiful is the favorite among the girls and is being wooed by the solicitous Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter). Elizabeth, though very pretty, is headstrong and very picky about a potential suitor. Kitty and Lydia are both terribly silly and frivolous, and Lydia’s folly will eventually bring potential social disaster to the Bennett family. Mary is the dour, plain sister, pious to a fault. At a party, Elizabeth meets the fabulously rich Mr. Darcy (Firth) and the two make terrible first impressions on each other and instantly take a dislike to each other. As the plot develops, misunderstandings and unsubstantiated rumors cause further alienation between the two.
Obviously there’s much more to the plot, but it would be a shame to give it away – suffice to say, though, it’s a corker. Austen’s work is very cinematic and lends itself well to film – this is especially true with Pride and Prejudice. As with other BBC productions, the producers do not skimp on scenery or costumes – the Georgian English countryside is done with absolute authenticity (the making-of featurette on the A&E special edition goes over some of the research done before filming). Because the English countryside is littered with grand estates, the audience is gifted with fantastic scenes of luxurious grandeur – especially the scenes in Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberley.
The main draw of anything Austen-related is the sparkling comedy and wit – screenwriter Andrew Davies, who would later find success working on the Austen-inspired Bridget Jones films, does an incredible (and faithful) job of transporting the world of Austen from page to screen. He ensures that the script isn’t dumbed down for television, and given the leisurely six hour length of the film (technically a 6-part miniseries), he doesn’t have to shed much. Instead he allows for Austen’s hilarious and often-barbed humor to make its way into the script.
Along with a great script, the filmmakers put together a fantastic cast. Ehle is a wonderful Elizabeth – she’s funny and expertly portrays the steely confidence that simmers underneath polite genteelity. As the trio of younger sisters Briers, Maberly and Sawalha all do great – Sawalha in particular is a scene stealer and her deft comic timing will come as no surprise to those who recognize her as Saffy Monsoon on Absolutely Fabulous. As the Bennett matriarch, Steadman’s shrill, high-octane performance also scores laughs – she brings to mind Estelle Parsons in Bonnie and Clyde, with a loose and hilariously uproarious act. Also important to mention is the very funny David Bamber as the pathetic and synchophantic Mr. Collins, the Bennetts’ cousin, who visits the family to fish for a wife. Of course as great as all these British thespians are, the star of the show is Firth who becomes a minor TV icon of sorts with his performance as the initially sour-faced Darcey. He doesn’t necessarily carry the film, but he makes the biggest impression by sheer force of his star power – but it isn’t a performance merely of charisma – he does good work, ensuring that even while Darcey is acting like a major tool, we’re not put off by his character.
There will be little to find fault in this film – some may wonder if it’s too long, but that’s an asset as we are then given a chance to see each character’s behavior and interaction – even minor characters are given enough screen time so that they make an impression. It’s easy to see why this version of Pride and Prejudice still eclipses others in terms of popularity and acclaim.