A recurring feature in which I make all your dreams come true- ranking every Jane Austen adaption I can find from best to worst. You’re welcome.
It’s the top dog of all adaptations- the Austen Big Kahuna. It’s the one that’s the most referenced and parodied, the one you reach for when you’re a bit depressed and hungover, it’s The gold standard. But watching it the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice back now with your 2017 eyes, you have to admit that it’s a bit, well, it’s a touch… you know- it’s, it’s… kinda boring. Don’t be upset.
It might have been good enough when everyone just had five channels, but we’ve been spoiled by the golden age of television and as a result have developed some expectations. Where are the costumes that in reality would have been too expensive for the Bennets to wear? Where’s the ageing Hollywood actor whose salary is half the production budget? Where are the sumptuous scenic shots that the director is shoehorning in because they have to justify making the actors and crew fanny around on a pishy hillside for two days during shooting?
It’s of its time, in that director Simon Langton sets up the camera in front something vaguely Regency-esque and lets the actors and the English scenery tell the story. And that was fine before prestige telly, but nowadays viewers are used to more swish in their camera movements and more plush in their anachronistic sets. It might be unfair to judge its production values by today’s standards, but it just doesn’t POP, and we’ve become so used to (even mediocre) television that does. It also has pacing issues and is prone to padding, with too many bad pianoforte performances and rubbish dancing. If Regency club nights ever become a thing count me out.
But you can’t be an enduring classic without some high points. The casting is terrific, with Colin Firth being hands down the quintessential Mr. Darcy. Most actors playing Darcy or some version of him usually just act arsey until they have to blurt out their love for Elizabeth or her proxy, but Firth imbues him with quiet insecurity and sensitivity that make him a recognisable human being, not just a pouty dreamboat fantasy. When he’s playing Darcy falling in love with Elizabeth, it looks like he’s glowing from within in way you never see really male actors do when they play love interests. His performance as Darcy has become iconic, and deservedly so (although the appeal of the lake scene is done lost on me. You can’t see anything good!)
It’s also nice to see they hired real actresses as the Bennet sisters instead of picturesque English roses who know their modelling careers are quickly coming to an end and are trying to carve out a new income flow sharpish. Julia Sawalha plays Lydia like the raucous giggly teenager she really is, rather than the sly sex kitten type she’s sometimes played to be. But Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth stagnates when trying to conjure up emotional intimacy with her family, taking a more condescending tone than intended when attempting to play the loving sister, especially in scenes with Jane (Susannah Harker).
She’s at her best while playing Elizabeth at her cattiest, with the two standouts being her smiling dressing down of Wickham when he tries to elicit her sympathy again after his elopement with Lydia, and of course her devastating clap back when Darcy first proposes. Her face is a contortion of mortification and seething rage and her delivery is consistently just under boiling point, keeping Elizabeth on the right side of savage. The best thing about this adaption is that it’s those type of moments, where the heroine is trying to manoeuvre through the Regency period while trying to juggle things like self respect, social politics and romance at the same time, that is the real appeal of Austen, not just the big declarations of love and smooching that happen just before the credits role. This adaption does really gets Austen and nicely brings that spirit to the screen.
Not as flawless as you remember it to be but still pretty good, the BBC 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is a bit like a well respected matronly aunt on the Jane Austen landscape- much loved, but not as much fun as she was back in the day.
RANK: as it’s the first in the series and all, Pride and Prejudice (1995) is currently sitting at #1
1. Pride and Prejudice (1995)