Last month we received an unusual request at Dear Author. We were asked to review something other than a book — a DVD set called “The Romance Collection: Special Edition.” The 14 DVD set, which can be found here, retails for $99.95 and contains nearly 30 hours of programming (not including the special features) from A&E’s romantic films and miniseries.
The eight titles included in “The Romance Collection: Special Edition” are as follows: “Pride and Prejudice” starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, “Victoria and Albert,” starring Nigel Hawthorne, Jonathan Pryce and Sir Peter Ustinov, “Emma,” starring Kate Beckinsale, “Jane Eyre,” starring Deborah Findlay and Ciaran Hinds, “Lorna Doone,” starring Martin Clunes, Richard Coyle, Aidan Gillen and Amelia Warner, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” starring Richard E. Grant and Elizabeth McGovern, “Tom Jones,” starring Max Beesley, Samantha Morton and Benjamin Whitrow, and “Ivanhoe,” starring Steven Waddington and Ciaran Hinds.
While we probably won’t be reviewing all eight of these films, we do hope to review a few of them and this review of “Pride and Prejudice” is the first of these reviews.
I should confess now that I volunteered to review “Pride and Prejudice” partly because (and here comes a shameful admission) the novel of the same title was the only one of the seven classic books that seven of these eight films are based on which I had actually read in its entirety. Philistine that I am, I couldn’t make it past the midpoint of Jane Eyre, and as for the other five books, I’ve never even attempted to read them.
It occurred to me only after I finished viewing “Pride and Prejudice” that perhaps I am not the best choice of reviewer, since it’s been well over a decade since I read Jane Austen’s novel, and since, while I enjoyed it, I can’t say I ever fell in love with it the way so many people have. So please keep that in mind when reading my review.
This BBC production, made in 1995 and first released in the U.S. in 1996, is directed by Simon Langton and stars Colin Firth as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
To anyone unfamiliar with the story, Elizabeth, or Lizzy as she is frequently called, is the second of the five daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. The Bennets’ financial situation is not secure. Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed and therefore he cannot pass it on to his daughters after his death, and for that reason it is imperative that his daughters marry well. So when “a single man in possession of a good fortune,” Mr. Bingley, moves into the nearby country estate of Netherfield Park, Mrs. Bennet begins to hope that he will marry one of her daughters.
Charles Bingley arrives at an assembly accompanied by his haughty sisters and his seemingly even haughtier friend Mr. Darcy. Bingley is quickly smitten with the oldest Bennet sister Jane. Darcy, however, remains aloof, and seems put off by Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to interest him in Lizzy. And later in the evening, Lizzy overhears him saying “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Lizzy takes the comment as evidence of Darcy’s excessive pride, and it prejudices her against him, as does a story told by Mr. George Wickham, an officer in a regiment that is quartered nearby, who tells Lizzy Darcy did him a great injustice.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bingley and Lizzy’s favorite sister Jane grow closer, and Darcy casts smoldering looks Lizzy’s way. Mr. Bennet’s heir, the obnoxious Mr. Collins, a clergyman who wants to marry one of the Bennet sisters, arrives in the neighborhood at this point, and he sets his mind on marrying Lizzy, who has no interest in him.
Bingley, his sisters and Darcy then unexpectedly depart the country for London, and Jane too, goes to London to stay with her aunt and uncle, in the hopes of encountering the man she loves there. But her hopes are crushed, and when Lizzy, visiting a friend, encounters Darcy again, she does not hesitate to lay the blame for that, and for Wickham’s difficulties, at Mr. Darcy’s feet.
But Darcy, against his will, has fallen in love with Elizabeth, and despite his reticence, cannot allow all her misapprehensions to stand. Will Lizzy ever change her mind? And will true love triumph over pride and prejudice? The answers to those questions are probably known to many romance readers, but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying the story.
My main criticism of this miniseries is that at five hours, its pace sometimes feels a tad too stately for me. That was true of the book as well, however, and I think it would be difficult to make a faithful adaptation much shorter. Nonetheless, there were times I wished that Langton and screenwriter Andrew Davies had found a way to make the story feel as though it was moving along at a good clip.
Another problem for me was that I didn’t love Jennifer Ehle’s portrayal of Lizzy. Ehle is clearly a good actress, and she captures Elizabeth’s wit and cynicism, as well as her loyalty to her sister Jane. But there is also something a touch too self-contained and self-satisfied for my taste about her version of Lizzy, and I can’t say I had a lot of empathy for the character as portrayed by Ehle.
A couple of secondary performances that did not work that well for me were Alison Steadman’s in the role of Mrs. Bennet, and David Bamber’s in that of Mr. Collins. I feel that Ms. Steadman plays Mrs. Bennet as a shrill and vulgar harpy who remains one dimensional throughout, and that Mr. Bamber’s Mr. Collins has so many exaggerated mannerisms that, although he is funny, it becomes difficult to believe that such a man could have actually existed.
Fortunately, the strong performances outnumber the weak ones. First and foremost among the miniseries’ diamonds is Colin Firth’s performance. His Mr. Darcy is filled with repressed passion, and when he admits to Elizabeth that he wants her despite his better judgment we can both believe that he desires her powerfully and that he wishes almost as powerfully that he did not. The storyline often requires Darcy to be silent, and yet even when he is silent, Firth compels the viewer’s attention with his heated glances.
Many of the other performances in this miniseries are also quite successful, but due to space constraints I will confine myself to listing only a few.
Anna Chancellor is especially good as Miss Caroline Bingley, who does not aid Jane Bennet’s romance with her brother and who wants Mr. Darcy for herself. The role requires Ms. Chancellor to reveal to the viewer the disappointment that she tries to conceal from Mr. Darcy, and Ms. Chancellor pulls off this feat quite well, creating a very believable antagonist in the process.
Julia Sawalha also gives a strong performance as the flaky Miss Lydia Bennet, making her character’s frivolity part of a kind of teenaged enthusiasm for good-looking men that renders Lydia’s actions more understandable.
Among the secondary male actors, Crispin Bonham Carter (who according to IMDB is Helena Bonham Carter’s cousin) is very sympathetic and likeable as the good natured Mr. Charles Bingley, and Benjamin Whitrow delivers Mr. Bennet’s wry observations with perfect comedic timing.
Though I wished for tighter editing and a more emotionally affecting score, I thought the production values were also strong for the most part. John Kenway’s cinematography nicely captures the charms of the English countryside. Actual English country houses are used to great effect both as sets and in the art direction, and the house that doubles for Darcy’s home of Pemberley is particularly impressive, just as it should be.
The costume design, by Dinah Collin, also impressed me, precisely because it didn’t seem to go out of its way to do so. I like that the Bennet sisters’ financial straits are accentuated by the way they are dressed in simpler costumes than the more sumptuous frocks worn by wealthier female characters such as Bingley’s sisters or Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
The related special features include a Jane Austen biography and bibliography, cast biographies and filmographies, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), and a behind-the-scenes featurette, “The Making of Pride and Prejudice.”
Overall, I enjoyed this “Pride and Prejudice.” though perhaps not as much as people with greater patience and avid fans of the book will. My grade for this one is a B-.