Pride & Prejudice (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Pre-Victorian writer Jane Austen, who died in 1817, has had more books adapted for film in the last twelve months than prolific contemporary authors Michael Crichton and John Grisham. In a very real sense, the movie world is undergoing an "Austen Renaissance", and what's especially pleasing about this trend is that the adaptations are uniformly superb: intelligent, well-acted examples of film making at its best. Austen only completed six major novels, and three -- Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice -- are now available in new movie versions, with Emma yet to come.

It's difficult to determine which of Austen's books represents her best work. All are widely-read and well-loved. Volumes of literary criticism have been written about each novel, but, ultimately, it's individual preference that leads to choosing a favorite. Much the same is true of the filmed versions, yet the three movies are of such high caliber that a viewer who enjoys one is likely to be equally captivated by the other two. However, without in any way denigrating Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, it's no stretch to recognize that Pride and Prejudice is the best, and most complete, of these adaptations.

At over 270 minutes in length, Pride and Prejudice (shown as a TV mini-series rather than a theatrical release) has a running time which exceeds that of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility combined. Without the pressure to trim subplots and condense scenes, screenwriter Andrew Davies (Middlemarch) has allowed the full texture of Austen's novel to emerge. Nuances and details that would be lost in a shorter version add strength to this one, so that, even at over four and one-half hours, Pride and Prejudice rarely loses momentum.

The main plot thread traces the relationship of Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle), the second of five sisters, and a wealthy young gentleman named Darcy (Colin Firth of Circle of Friends and The Advocate). The two are not immediately attracted to each other -- a fair share of pride and prejudice separates them (hence the title) -- but, as the story progresses, they are forced to examine their hearts as well as their preconceptions about each other, in order to understand the truth.

Of course, Pride and Prejudice unfolds more than just Lizzie and Darcy's tale. There's a parallel love story between Lizzie's older sister, Jane (Susannah Harker), and the charming Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter). We also follow the thwarted marital plans of an odious, simpering cleric by the name of Collins (David Bamber), and learn dark secrets about the character of the seemingly open and generous Wickham (Adrian Lukis).

Whereas the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice, which starred Laurence Olivier as Darcy and Greer Garson as Elizabeth, conveyed the bare bones plot of the novel, it was less successful in translating the book's tone to the screen. This latest adaptation has no such deficiency. Austen's wry, incisive humor is much in evidence. In fact, it is this quality, along with deft characterization, that prevents the movie from descending into the realm of a nicely-costumed, brilliantly-photographed melodrama.

The acting is uniformly flawless. Jennifer Ehle, a stage thespian with minimal film experience, is enchanting as Lizzie. With a countenance resembling that of a young Meryl Streep, and talent to match, she acts as much with her eyes and features as with the rest of her person. One of the most difficult aspects of adapting a classic novel is imparting the thoughts and feelings of characters to the audience without resorting to intrusive internal monologues. Ehle's expressive face and carefully-controlled body language make this a surprisingly easy task.

Colin Firth, a more familiar face to movie-goers, compliments Ehle perfectly. Like her, he does much of his best acting without dialogue. We understand Darcy's inner turmoil as he grapples with his feelings for Lizzie long before he speaks a word about his love. Firth also delights in playing up the ambiguity of the character, making us wonder whose opinion of Darcy is the correct one.

As is consistently true of BBC productions, the supporting cast is excellent. Susannah Harker, who was in TV's House of Cards mini-series, is an enchanting Jane. Julia Sawalha, Ab Fab's Saffron, is Lydia, one of the younger Bennet sisters. Alison Steadman (Life is Sweet, Clockwise) and Benjamin Whitrow (Clockwise) are delightful as the playfully bickering Bennet parents. Crispin Bonham-Carter (distant cousin to Helena) brings a feckless charm to the character of Bingley. Adrian Lukis is the slippery Wickham, Anna Chancellor is Bingley's waspish sister, David Bamber plays the sycophant Collins, and Barbara Leigh-Hunt takes snobbery and arrogance to the limit as Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

Director Simon Langton is as worthy of praise as his actors. Langton, who has a long and distinguished career with BBC television, has directed episodes of Danger UXB, Upstairs, Downstairs, The Dutchess of Duke Street, and Love for Lydia, as well as the entire series of Smiley's People. He also made the 1985 TV film Anna Karenina starring Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve. Yet with Pride and Prejudice, one of English literature's great classics, he may have accepted his most imposing challenge to date, and the production's success is a notable achievement.

For those who love the work of Jane Austen, 1995-6 has been a rare time. For those unfamiliar with her novels, this is the perfect opportunity to change that. Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice are all readily available, and none are likely to disappoint. With its gorgeous costumes and settings, superlative acting, and engaging script, this latest adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is easily worth the investment in time. A more rewarding 280 minutes will be difficult to come by.

Pride & Prejudice (United Kingdom, 1995)

Run Time: 4:40
U.S. Release Date: 1996-01-14
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1