Friday, December 30, 2016

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Director: Simon Langton                               Writers: Andrew Davies & Jane Austin
Film Score: Carl Davis                                  Cinematography: John Kenway
Starring: Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman

Back in the late eighties, the A&E network actually lived up to its name, delivering artistic films and entertaining television shows that couldn’t be seen anywhere else, even on PBS. In fact, A&E had a relationship with the BBC at the time and it showed a lot of their content that PBS either didn’t have the time or the money to be able to air. So it makes sense that they would eventually combine to produce new content for both of their networks. That’s how Pride and Prejudice was born. For many people this is the definitive screen version of Jane Austen’s classic novel for the simple reason that, in being able to film six fifty-minute episodes, it is so complete. Despite impressive, and successful, attempts to adapt the story for feature films, those adaptations necessarily leave much of the original novel out which results not only in a slightly different story but a much quicker pace. The one aspect of this mini-series that is so unique is that the slowed down pacing gives a real sense of the time period, with character sitting around and the camera content to linger on them as they walk or talk, or play cards or read a book, and allows the relationships to develop more naturally. The story is able to unfold in essentially the way that Austen intended it and for fans of the novel--as distinct from simply fans of the story--nothing else is going to come close.

The story begins in the home of the Bennett family. Patriarch Benjamin Whitrow and his wife, Alison Steadman, are in the unfortunate circumstance of having five daughters and no sons, which means Whitrow’s estate will pass on to a cousin on his death and his wife and daughters will inherit nothing. Wealthy gentleman Crispin Bonham-Carter has recently rented a nearby estate and his friend Colin Firth is visiting. It’s during a local ball that Bonham-Carter falls in love with the eldest of the Bennet girls, Susannah Harker, and where Firth takes an instant dislike to her younger sister, Jennifer Ehle, who feels the same way about Firth. The rest of the story is a wonderful series of misunderstandings that prefigure the kind of romantic comedy tropes popular today. Ehle hears reports from unreliable sources, mainly Adrian Lukis, confirming her bad opinion of Firth. And when the two are together she can’t help but mock his serious, disapproving, and aristocratic manner. His pride at being a noble, combined with her prejudice in believing she knows everything about him, serves to keep them apart for most of the story. Meanwhile, Steadman is doing everything in her power to get her daughters married off, with both comic and tragic results. But, as always happens at in Austen’s novels, everything comes out as it should in the end.

The driving force behind the project was Sue Birtwistle, who wanted to do a more modernized spin on the story while staying true to Austen’s words and story. To do this she hired Andrew Davies, who has made a career of adapting classic works for the screen. This was his first Austen adaptation and it shows the kind of touch that he would add to all the author’s works that he would turn into screenplays, trying to convey the real sexual tension beneath the mannered behaviors of the early nineteenth-century world of England. And to top it all off, the great Carl Davis--who had unsuccessfully been working on a ballet of the novel for years--made himself available to score the project and did a tremendous job of enlivening the story for modern audiences emulating the most popular music of the day, namely Mozart. Jennifer Ehle is an interesting choice to play Elizabeth Bennett, as she had only done television work for a couple of years prior to this, but that anonymous quality works well. Colin Firth already had a successful film career, but this was the first of the kind of historical dramas that he would become known for. The rest of the cast, while not quite up to Hollywood standards, does a very convincing job and are quite enjoyable overall, especially the dry witted Benjamin Whitrow. For all of these reasons, this BBC and A&E co-production of Pride and Prejudice remains one of the best versions of the classic Jane Austen novel ever produced.

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