Most romantic films #4: Pride & Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice (1995) — the BBC version starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, in my opinion. The later Keira Knightly/Mathew Macfadyen film is inferior mostly because the two-hour length forces the writers and director to cut a great deal of the best material to the bone. Plus they mix in a certain Gothic-Romantic element foreign to Austen’s original.

The BBC, by contrast, takes 6 hours to do it right, including the all-important aspects of costuming, exteriors and interiors of period houses and gardens, and the properties and details that are so vivid in Austen’s books. Austen’s readers, every bit as demanding as those of Tolkein or Herbert, require such attention, as well as the several subplots that enliven the main plot of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

And I just like Ehle and Firth better as a couple: wittier, more complicated, less pretty perhaps, but more substantial and interesting. And the supporting cast is perfectly cast.

What I particularly like about the Austen novels which translates perfectly in this film is the humor. Austen is a social critic–like all great comedy writers–and her ear for dialogue and her eye for human behavior is spot on. We immediately like Elizabeth and Darcy because we see they are each flawed–although we realize right away they are destined for each other. The greatest obstacle to their happiness is simply their own “pride” and “prejudice.”

But there are plenty of other people to laugh at and to contrast them with… people Austen has less generosity for. Like Mrs. Bennett, here played perfectly by Alison Steadman, a very gifted actress; while I love watching Steadman in other films, here she makes my teeth gnash as the selfish and foolish mother. Like Mr. Collins, played by David Bamber, a fine actor who plays the complete fool/sycophant deliciously. The notion that he might, somehow, get Lizzie to marry him still gives me chills.

Ehle and Firth are dazzling as the main couple. Firth was relatively unknown at the time, and actually turned the film down until the producers talked him into it; I suspect he thought Austen was only “romance” stuff for girls, but reading it again (or for the first time) showed him the intelligent wit and deep moral questions involved. Ehle is a charming Lizzie: too smart for her own good, and surprised, eventually, by her attraction to this reticent, snobby man… who turns out to be a loving brother, fine employer, and deeply honest man.

The love story between Lizzie and Darcy is beautifully staged. Each one grows and transforms during the time apart, and their meetings bring increased awareness and interest, attraction, then love to the two. Although there is only one kiss, we are certain these two are in love for the rest of their lives, perfectly suited, and better people than when they first met.

And, as I said, the BBC does it up right with costumes, interiors, exteriors, and all the trimmings to create the very fine context for this story. It is, after all, about class and family, about marriage and inheritance, about trust and deceit and love.

This version is also extremely well-written, using more of Austen’s own lines than the 2005 version. It is, simply, a great adaptation that makes one want to re-read the book, without being dry or slow. There is no greater compliment!

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