Monday, June 24, 2013

Pride and Prejudice (1995): Influence and Merit

My poor, neglected blog! I have often had cause to begin a post in similar style, but this time I feel particularly frustrated, for I had finally had a good stint of uninterrupted blogging, the first solid one since Eliza was born two years and two weeks ago. I'm afraid her birthday party entirely overset me, and I am only now beginning to recover my equilibrium.

By the way, the party was awesome, if a massive distraction.

What better way to get back in the swing of things with the mother of all reviews: Andrew Davies' 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It's a review I've been far too overwhelmed to even contemplate for years, but I have decided to attempted it as my 6th review for the Pride and Prejudice Bicentennial Celebration 2013. The problem is that regardless of which P&P adaptation is any given person's preference, all must agree that it way the release of this version that gave birth to the modern Janeite, turning our dear Miss Austen into the "It girl" of the early 21st century. Lory Lilian (author of one of my favorite P&P variations, Rainy Days) and I once discussed this phenomenon at this blog (read Sexy JAFF: A Conversation with Lory Lilian here), and so I will not reiterate our conclusions now but to assert that it is a truth universally acknowledged that the world was never quite the same after Colin Firth jumped in that pond. This review is so hard to write because this is more than just an excellent film adaptation of one of the most beloved English novels: it is the stimulus for a phenomenon.

So much of the Austenesque genre is inspired directly by this movie. It's conventions and imagery crops up in a large percentage of Pride and Prejudiced based novels on the market. This is most blatant in the names of characters. It was Mr. Davies' who dubbed Mrs. Bennet Fanny, Mrs. Gardiner Madeline, and Darcy's uncle the Earl of Matlock, and these monikers have now become almost canon. Entire scenes derived from the movie, rather than the novel, are referenced in book after book. I think it worth while to dwell on some of my favorites:

This scene from Relations Such As These by Sara O'Brien is clearly inspired by the opening of
the movie, during which Elizabeth spies Darcy and Bingley galloping across the Netherfield property, but this book being a "What If?", there are a few changes:
Being good horsemen, they galloped along a meadow, each man lost to their own musings and without much awareness of their surroundingd. Truth be told, Bingley seemed to be simply enjoying the ride and said, "This does seem like a pleasant place does it not, Darcy, Fitzwilliam?" 
Fitzwilliam replied, "It does indeed, Bingley, such large meadows for the horses and the timbers for shade ... yes this could be a descent prospect."  
Darcy said, "Let us not make any hasty decisions based upon some 'pleasantness' of the prospect or the size of the meadow." He pointedly looked at his companions, "We must ensure that there a no major issues with drainage or major repairs ... you realize that could cost you much more than the lease if you are not careful, Bingley." 
His two companions scoffed at his sober remarks but did not comment further after studying his serious mien. ... 
As the gentlemen rode on, they all failed to notice a young gentlewoman walking along the property line near the meadow at the timberline. Within seconds, Darcy noted her presence and quickly pulled back hard on the reigns. He could feel his heart racing violently at the fright of nearly trampling the inattentive young woman. 
The scene during which Mr. Darcy watches Elizabeth playing with a dog from one of Netherfield's windows may have been the inspiration for the entire premise of one of my very most favorite P&P retellings, Master Under Good Regulation by Kara Louise, which is told entirely from the perspective of Mr. Darcy's dog. It certainly at least inspired this moment:
I offered a paw in apology for the rudeness to which she had just been subjected, waging my tail to show my earnest. She stooped down and beckoned me to come. When I approached her, she cpped my face with her hands. 
"Reggie, how pleasant it is to witness such graciousness and affable manners! I asked you this once and I shall ask you again. How is it that you are so polite when he is so ill mannered?" 
She reached down and picked up a stick and I waited with great expectantcy for her to throw it. But instead of letting it go, she held onto it; resolutely pounding it into her open palm. 
"He certainly is an enigma, Reggie. Of he is not brooding and silent, he is critical of everyone and everything he sees. I sense his disdain for me as sure as I do Miss Bingley's."
I found it difficult keeping my eyes adhered to the stick whilst attending to her words about my master. Unfortunately, the words were neither heartening to me nor complimentary to him. 
"One would think that a man of education and striking advantage would somewhere along the way have acquired even the most basic civilities." She paused contemplatively. 
"Perhaps he does not oblige himself to attend to those for whom he sees no advantage to himself." She let out a breathy laugh. "If that is the case, Reggie, I can hardly expect that he would concern himself with satusfying my demands for well-mannered behavior." 
She continued to tease me with the stick as she dispirited me with her words. "And his adea of an accomplished woman! Has he ever met a lady who has attained all that? I would imagine that even all the ladies he has met in the ton would scarcely meet his unrivaled expectations." 
I sadly realized that she was completely unaware that my master considered her to be most accomplished. Miss Elizabeth may not be all the things Miss Bingley had in her list of accomplishments, but she certainly possessed the ones my master deemed essential. My tail gave a few fervent thumps against the ground, surging from a deep sense of frustration at the manner in which my master and Miss Elizabeth continually misapprehended one another. 
She unexpectedly gave the stick a spirited toss and with a great laugh, called out, "Fetch!" 
My legs responded with little thought as I quickly set out to retrieve it. But at my old age, my eagerness to please her propelled me more than my vigor, and I returned to her panting, but in proud possession of the stick. 
"Good boy, Reggie. You are an infinitely preferable companion," she affirmed, as she took the stick and patted the top of my head.
And from the book I am currently enjoying, Bluebells in the Mourning by KaraLynne Mackrory (review soon to come), this image of Pemberley as Elizabeth first sees it is clearly Lyme Park, the location used for Pemberley's exterior:
Elizabeth kept her eyes glued to the window as she scanned the woods for some glimpse of the house. Just as their carriage crested the top of the hill, her eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, and she audibly gasped. It was elegant with a dignified facade backed by many acres of trees. An exquisite  greenway led to a beautiful manicured lake. It could not be equaled in her mind to any of the other estates she had seen thus far - indeed, any estate in existence, she was sure. It was simply stunning - stunning and very large. She had not thought Mr. Darcy so rich.
Now how can I continue to delay actually critiquing this film? How about a few confessions:

First, this was not only the first Pride & Prejudice adaptation I ever saw: it was also my first Austen film, period. I was sixteen years old at the time it first aired in the US, and I had just finished Mansfield Park, the last of Austen's major novels I read, when a rare glimpse at PBS (though it would mark the beginning of an ongoing love affair with public media) informed me the mini-series would begin airing that very Sunday. I can't recall whether I spent the next five successive Sunday nights at home alone or if they showed the entire thing at once, but I do know that I did not miss a moment. This version has ever since been my gold standard for all literary adaptations. Though it is my favorite Pride & Prejudice movie, I greatly enjoy the other versions as well, especially 1980 (read my review of it here).

Second, though for me Colin Firth epitomizes Mr. Darcy, I really don't care for the wet shirt scene that made him so famous. I think its awkward, and I don't like seeing Mr. Darcy placed in a circumstance which must be, for him, terribly embarrassing. The moment is uncomfortable enough without him being in a state of undress. I am far more fond of the clips of him fencing, especially that determined statement, "I will conquer this!" which is so beautifully in character.

Third, it seems I don't have as much difficulty pointing out the movie's faults as I previously stated, for upon consideration there are also several casting/character portrayals that bother me immensely. Most particularly, I don't particularly care for Susannah Harker as Jane Bennet. The problem, I believe, lies largely with the script and direction, not the actress, but I find her portrayal inconsistent with Austen's character, especially in the scene where she redirects Mr. Collins' attention from Elizabeth in a rather conniving way. I vastly prefer her depiction in 1980 by Sabina Franklyn. That film also does a better job with Georgiana Darcy. Emilia Fox is very pretty in the role, but I think her too forward. For more on which film I think does the best with each character, do check out my Pride and Prejudice Mashup.

Minor grievances aside, I must watch this movie at least once a year. My husband is almost always happy to join me in this pursuit, which says much for the film's endurance. As soon as the opening music begins I get super sentimental. I adore Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. That first scene with them is beyond perfect. And Jennifer Ehle (though she looks a bit older than Elizabeth's 20 years) captures Elizabeth's sparkle better than any other actress who has played the role. Her eyes literally laugh, and at all the right times. Julia Sawalha is astounding as Lydia (especially to those of us who know her as Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous), as is David Bamber as Mr. Collins (love the sweat - Austen doesn't mention it, but you know it should be there). I still laugh and cry at this film, as I did the first time I watched it.

Despite complaints about Jane, I adore the scenes between Elizabeth and her in their rooms. It's a beautiful way to capture these essential moments in the character development of both, especially as a way to glimpse into Elizabeth's psyche. I also can't say enough in praise of Anna Chancellor as Caroline Bingley. Her expressions are spectacular. Her face when Darcy shoots her down at Pemberley is magnificent, but even better is the look she has when Mary Bennet usurps her place at the piano during the Netherfield ball. Hilarious! Speaking of images from this movie appearing in Austenesque, every time a writer mentions how hideous Miss Bingley looks in orange, that moment immediately comes to mind (it does seem to be a color both the costumers and writers of Austenesque favor for her).

There is far too much excellent about this film to mention it all. Perhaps my favorite part, and one of the most difficult to adapt, is the scene in which Mr. Darcy writes his letter and Elizabeth reads it. I love the flashbacks with Wickham, and I thoroughly approve of the decision to recount that part of the letter first, as Mr. Darcy composes it, while having Elizabeth read the beginning of the letter second, addressing Bingley and Jane's situation, despite this being exactly opposite of Austen's presentation. In switching the order, the film allows us to forgive Mr. Darcy quickly that we may commiserate with his angst as he writes, while creating a greater sense of tension (and catharsis) as Elizabeth reads his rather antagonizing explanation for separating his friend from his sister. Nevertheless, what I love most about this movie is its careful adherence to the original story. Perhaps that's why the portrayals of Jane and Georgiana irritate me so much. I'm the sort who adores those old verbatim BBC adaptations. The 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice bridges the gap between those long and precise mini-series of old, whose charm can be difficult to discern through quality issues, and the new crop that we now enjoy, with their stunning cinematography and spectacular costuming. So much we wouldn't have if not for this film! I am eternally grateful for it.

Want to read my other Bicentennial Celebration reviews? Check them out below:

Pride and Platypus by Vera Nazarian

Mr. Darcy's Little Sister vs. And This Our Life by C. Allyn Pierson

An Unlikely Missionary by Skylar Hamilton Burris

The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy by Regina Jeffers

The Three Colonels by Jack Caldwell


  1. Great review! And I'm glad to hear you've finally got a bit of time to relax and indulge in some P&P goodness. Though I'm sure your daughter is very much worth the effort (and you named her Eliza! Excuse me while I collapse into an incomprehensible ball of emotions).

    I do love this adaptation as well. They did a great job of incorporating Austen's lines, and while Ehle does seem a little too old, I have to agree with you about her ability to capture Lizzie's sparkle. She was the only one who could convince me of Lizzie's "fine eyes".

    1. Thanks, Lady Disdain! Watching this movie is always kind of a zen experience. It just makes the world brighter, much like the book.

      Eliza is named for two very distinct fictional characters: Elizabeth Bennet and Eliza Doolittle. Miss Doolittle was one of my early childhood obsessions, while Miss Bennet I came to know with time, but I have always adored the name. She is also named after my very real great-grandmother, Eva, whose hebrew name - Chava - she shares. It means life, which melds very will with the two Elizas, don't you think?

  2. The 1995 version is my favorite as well!

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