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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Anna Chancellor, Julia Sawalha
Director: Simon Langton
Audio: English Stereo
Subtitles: none
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen
Studio: A&E
Features: biographies, making-of featurette
Length: 300 minutes
Release Date: September 25, 2001

"I am determined that nothing but the very deepest love will induce me into matrimony."

Film ****

There are few classic novels of English literature which have been as beloved as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  Written around the turn of the nineteenth century, this novel has captivated generations of audiences with its imaginative accounts of affairs of the hearts set amidst the amicable Hertfordshire countryside.  The novel's continuing universal appeal, having subsisted for nigh two centuries, is the very endorsement of its stature as one of literature's most timeless romances.

Naturally, the cinematic world could scarcely be expected to refrain from adapting so popular a work of literature.  Traditionally, the 1940 Hollywood movie starring Garson Greer and Laurence Olivier has curried the most favor among the novel's many admirers.  Of late however, a 1995 BBC miniseries production has earned the adoration of many, young and old, in establishing itself as perhaps the quintessential film version of Pride and Prejudice.

Originally broadcast in the States by the cable channel A & E, the five-hour miniseries vividly captures the romantically-inclined world of the Bennet sisters, five in number and lively all.  In Hertfordshire, they reside in relative harmony, nevertheless wont to occasional discord over the promise of future marriage.  Jane Bennet is the eldest, a lovely young debutante and the fairest among her siblings.  Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) follows in age, being not yet one-and-twenty.  She is an unconventional beauty and one not so easily ruffled by the casual acquaintances of prospective love mates.  It is Elizabeth who will be the independent and willful heroine of our story.

Of the remaining sisters, perhaps only one has the resemblance of sense about her.  She is Mary, a somewhat reflective child preoccupied more so with literature and her own musical aspirations than with the superficialities of courtship rituals.  Of Lydia and Kittie, the two youngest sisters, the less said of their frivolous and flirtatious ways, the better, for they do bring great disconcertment upon their father, Mr. Bennet, who numbers his youngest daughters among the silliest girls in all of England.

Were that Mr. Bennet be brave enough to include his wife in such an estimate as well, it surely would be a legitimate claim, for Mrs. Bennet is first and foremost a most ridiculous woman.  She prattles on so that one should wonder if any gentleman, faced with the distinction of such a loquacious mother-in-law, would ever care to marry one of her daughters.  Furthermore, Mrs. Bennet, being fickle to a fault, is possessed of a tendency to speak her mind without due consideration as for the actual worth of her remarks.  If she should not sabotage the very results for which she toils, then she should at least provide some sporting if incidental humor for this tale.

The Bennets live at Longbourne, a rural manor of Hertfordshire.  Theirs is a society wherein young girls are properly raised for the singular occupation of becoming young wives.  While love may play a part, however small, in a match of marriage, such formalities are more often than not unions of convenience and circumstance, arranged by parents or other such chaperons.  And so, when a certain Charles Bingley, a young man of agreeable fortune, is lately arrived for lodgings at Netherfield Park, there is much anticipation on Mrs. Bennet's behalf that such a gentleman should be properly in want of one of her daughters for wife.  To this end, she entreats her husband to call upon Bingley that formal acquaintances might henceforth be established.

A social ball in Meryton affords Bingley an opportunity whereby he might introduce himself to the Bennet girls in glad fashion.  As Jane is the fairest of the ladies at the ball, she is not long in capturing the principal attentions of Bingley.  But if Bingley should be enjoying himself immensely in the dancing and hospitality of the Meryton assembly, the same cannot be said of his hesitant companions for the evening - two unenthused sisters and one reticent Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth).  Bingley's sisters look upon their rural countrymen as little more than unpolished rabble, while Darcy stands to a side, affixed with an expression of such inexhaustible boredom that might well slew a wild boar with its piercing apathy.

Try as they might, neither Bingley nor a Mr. Lucas, father to Elizabeth's good friend Charlotte, succeed in enticing Darcy to partake of the sociality of the evening.  Bingley, with good cheer to ameliorate Darcy's fastidious spirits, suggests Elizabeth's availability for a dance, only to be countered when Darcy, deeming her beneath his consideration, flatly responds, "I am in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men."

Were Elizabeth of a more delicate deposition, she might not deign, behind a tearful visage, to afford Darcy any further regard after such an uncharitable remark, and thus would regrettably end our tale in short order.  Yet, upon overhearing Darcy's unfortunate comments, Elizabeth is instead moved to bemusement, her spirits little affected by his impropriety.  Darcy's very supposition that she is merely "tolerable" and "not handsome enough," even if Elizabeth should now share such sentiments of him, will in time reveal itself to be completely erroneous.  As Darcy is in truth more complaisant than Elizabeth has surmised, so she in turn will eventually become "one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance" in Darcy's mind.  Let them for now publicly profess their disdain for one another, while secretly stealing glances as the other's gaze is elsewhere; we the viewers are the wiser, and we know that upon this foundation of apparent animosity, there lingers that unmistakable emanation of blossoming young love.

And so, the stage is set for a tale of passion and revelry, pride and prejudice.  We may wager for a joyous conclusion that unites our pre-ordained lovers of Jane and Bingley and perhaps our more reluctant, sparring couple of Elizabeth and Darcy.  But, the path to such an end will be long and filled with myriad tribulations ere true love finally fulfills its destiny.

Pride and Prejudice is partitioned into six episodes.  Each may be enjoyed separately, or the enterprising viewer, if so leisurely inclined, conceivably may allow the episodes to run one after another without interruption from title credits.  The initial episode introduces the Bennet family and details the arrival of Bingley to Netherfield Park and his subsequent courtship of Jane through a succession of dance balls and social functions.  There is also the matter of Darcy, of whom the proper ladies of Hertfordshire are of no two opinions concerning, as his well-bred mien and handsome wealth cannot sufficiently endear him to others for the deficiency he displays in continually giving offence.  But even as Darcy's manners are misunderstood, so then he does reveal in confidence to his friend's sisters, after much internal review, that the young Elizabeth Bennet is of more pleasing quality that he had at first recommended: "I was meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."

The second episode commences with the appearance at Longbourne of the right Reverend Collins.  Of new the Rector of Hunsford in Kent, Mr. Collins arrives to trespass upon the friendly hospitality of his cousin, Mr. Bennet, for but a matter of days, during which time he hopes, God willing, to woo for marriage one of Bennet's daughters.  He fancies Jane, but being rebuffed by news of Bingley's courtship for her affections, perceptively transfers his passion towards Elizabeth.  Undoubtedly a second rebuttal will soon await him, for Elizabeth's opinion of the pedantic reverend - "one of the stupidest men in England" - is not so very grand.

Indeed, Elizabeth has acquired another suitor of younger age and less fumbling air - Mr. Wickham, an officer in Her Majesty's Service and a charmed man of some pleasant countenance and manners.  Many a maiden of Hertfordshire has already cast an approving eye upon his handsome visage, but Wickham is perhaps more (or less) than what he seems.  Wickham's intent, for now, is the favor of Elizabeth Bennet, who, being unawares of Darcy's change of heart, is receptive to Wickham's compliments.  The suggestion of Darcy's grievous slight of Wickham in their common past only elevates Wickham in Elizabeth's estimate.

The third episode chronicles a sad turn of affairs for Jane.  Bingley, smitten though he may be with Jane, maintains in his character a want of proper resolution which, to his detriment, accords his sisters and Darcy the means to convince him otherwise of Jane's true affections for him.  Bingley thereby quits Netherfield for his more familiar London, leaving the matter to Jane to venture into the city to inquire modestly as to his sudden departure.

Elizabeth finds occasion to travel beyond the confines of Hertfordshire to call upon her dear friend, Charlotte, who is lately wed and wife to a dull man.  As Charlotte must now count among her social duties luncheon with her neighbors, so Elizabeth is inclined to accompany her.  Twice weekly, Charlotte dines with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a most properly-bred woman of distinguished lineage and certain financial comfort, of whose noblesse oblige Charlotte's husband enjoys the patronage.  It is at one of these luncheons that her Ladyship reveals designs to match her own lackluster daughter, Anne, with Mr. Darcy in marriage.  In good time, Darcy himself pays his respects to the good Lady Catherine, his aunt, but being now quite solicitous of Elizabeth's regard, forsakes his aunt's matrimonial plans and instead offers a startling proposal of love and marriage to Elizabeth:

In declaring myself thus I am fully aware that I will be expressively going against the wishes of my family, my friends, and I hardly need add my own better judgment.  The relative situations of our families is such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection.

The fourth episode opens immediately upon Elizabeth's unceremonious dismissal of Darcy's poorly phrased declaration of love.  Her obstinacy being well tempered by her sharpness, Elizabeth's impression of Darcy as a conceited boor is little improved by his further revelation of his involvement in Bingley's leave of Netherfield.  How could any man who has meddled so unwarrantedly in obstructing her own sister's happiness ever dream to be husband to her?  Still, the general sincerity of Darcy's proposal, if not the actual method of its delivery, leaves Elizabeth in a most confused state, as does his parting words of advice regarding Wickham's duplicitous nature.

In due time, having repaired to Longbourne to reflect upon Darcy's speech, Elizabeth is propositioned by her visiting aunt and uncle the Gardiners to accompany them on a tour of the Derbyshire manors, to include Pemberley as well, the grandest of the manors.  Pemberley is in fact the home estate of Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth, lost in her revelry as she roams the beautiful gardens of the estate, is happened upon by none other than the lovelorn gentleman, lately made miserable by his failed attempt to conquer his love for Elizabeth.  Humility has served Darcy well, and the subtle nature of his change, revealing itself in consideration of manners and gentleness, adorns him well to Elizabeth's eyes.

In the fifth episode, a renewal of friendship between Elizabeth and Darcy is formed.  There arises however an unfortunate incident of the sudden and scandalous elopement of Elizabeth's youngest sibling Lydia with the now-infamous Wickham, stationed at Brighton.  Darcy, having suffered Wickham to behave poorly for long enough, takes the matter upon himself to address personally and unwontedly.  After all, it will not do for Wickham to spoil the good name of the Bennet sisters, particularly if Darcy himself is enamored of one of them to wive.

And so, we come to the sixth and concluding episode, wherein all wrongs will surely be righted and the uncertainties of the heart's innermost yearnings will be resolved in good grace.  An acceptable solution will be proposed for Lydia's dilemma.  Bingley will see just cause to return to Netherfield and with Darcy's blessings to re-avow his affections for Jane.  And Elizabeth, with an enhanced opinion of Darcy, might finally realize her prophecy that only the deepest love could ever induce her into matrimony.

The BBC's Pride and Prejudice is an unqualified triumph.  Loyal to the spirit and letter of the Jane Austen novel, with winning performances from all the principals, it is a film that will delight audiences for years to come.  Colin Firth, with his handsome looks and brooding manners, is an ideal Darcy; one senses that beneath his stern countenance, there dwells a heart of compassion and kindness.  Jennifer Ehle is the film's true revelation.  An American-born actress, she is so disarmingly captivating as Elizabeth that any reasonable man could surely not help but to fall in love with her.  Ehle's charming performance garnered a BAFTA award (the British equivalence of an Oscar) for Best Actress in 1996, and young Ehle has since gone on to further prove her equal merit as a stage actress, winning a Tony Award in 2000 for Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing.

Pride and Prejudice is a tale of romance of the finest order.  For the young of heart and optimistic of mind, it is not to be missed and is prescribed with the highest recommendation!

Video ** 1/2

Pride and Prejudice is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer.  The aspect ratio is listed as 2.35:1, but this may be an exaggeration, for the image looks to be more in the vicinity of 1.66:1.

Generally, the picture appears decent, although it occasionally lacks for detail, revealing a mild blockiness upon close inspection.  These defects will only be appreciable upon the very largest viewing screens and so need not concern those among us of lesser means (and consequently smaller television sets).

Audio ** 1/2  

The characters of Pride and Prejudice speak with such refined elocution and elegance as to make the colloquial English spoken in society today sound vulgar by comparison.  Be that as it may, this audio is nevertheless quite satisfactory for what was originally a television broadcast.  The audio provides a two-channel presentation with a pleasantly clear listening experience though without the fanfare of the louder elements of modern audio systems.

Features * 1/2

Pride and Prejudice, being a five-hour miniseries, has been suitably divided between two discs.  Each disc contains three episodes (approximately fifty minutes in length apiece) as well as individual extra features.

On disc one, in addition to the film, there is a short biography section.  This section contains relevant background and brief filmographies for Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, director Simon Langton, and producer Sue Birtwistle.  There is also a biography of Jane Austen, including a chronology of her novels and other publications.

On disc two, a "Making of" featurette (27 min.) presents viewers with a look at the background, costume, editing, design, and casting of the miniseries.  Simon Langton, highly lauded for his previous direction on Upstairs, Downstairs, lent his credible talents as director to this miniseries and so serves as a commentator on this featurette.  His producer also assists in providing commentary, with the brief participation of various other members of the cast or crew.  Regrettably, Ehle and Firth do not offer forth their own appraisal of the miniseries.

Summary:

A capital achievement!  Pride and Prejudice should likely warm the hearts of all viewers.  If your favor is the costume or period drama, there is none finer of recent days than this BBC production.  Top recommendation.