My wife has been trying to get me to like Jane Austen for the 20-some years she’s known me. It has been an uphill battle. One that she has constantly failed at. It isn’t for a lack of trying on my part. I’ve seen the Ang Lee adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and at least a couple of versions of Emma. I liked them alright, but not enough to enter me into fandom. I’ve tried reading her books on more than one occasion but can never get past the first chapter. The biggest disappointment as far as my wife is concerned is that I have continually walked out on or fallen asleep during her annual viewings of the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle mini-series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It is a grave sin on my part. Of which I do now repent.
The trouble, for me, is that these stories inevitably involve the romantic inclinations of idle, wealthy, upper-class English people who are terribly upset that other idle, wealthy upper-class English people do not love them. I have trouble connecting to any of the characters and I certainly don’t care whether they find true love. I’ve learned that I much prefer the gothic romances of stories like Jane Eyre, which is still about relatively well-to-do people and their heart-strings, but at least it has a darker, ghost story to tell.
With this new Blu-ray release of Pride and Prejudice from the BBC, I finally delighted my wife by sitting down and watching it all. I won’t lie and say that I am a changed man, that I am desperately in love with Mr. Darcy and can now herald Jane Austen as one of my favorite writers, but I did enjoy myself and I do appreciate the story more than I’ve ever been able to before.
Pardon me a moment will I divert myself from ranting about my feelings for Jane Austen and her cinematic adaptations to discuss the actual story. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and is the second novel by Jane Austen. It is well beloved the world over and often appears as one of the greatest novels ever written. As such, it has been adapted many times for television and the movies. The BBC adapted it for this mini-series in 1995. It ran for six episodes over as many weeks with a run time just short of six hours.
It concerns the Bennetts, a fairly well-to-do family living in the English countryside during the early 1800s. They live in one of Britain’s Great Houses (well, it's not that great, it is no Downton Abbey for example, so lets says it's one of Britain’s pretty good houses) and have an income that supports them in comfort and leisure. But because Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (Benjamin Whitrow and Alison Steadman respectively) have produced no male heirs, only daughters, the house (and the income that goes with it) will go to the next male relations upon Mr. Bennett's death. Therefore, there is great need for one of the five daughters to find a rich husband that can support the family when this occurs.
Through lavish balls, dances, and regular visitations, the girls meet various young men, engage in various courting rituals, and are usually let down, or heartbroken in the end. The focus is on Elizabeth Bennett (Jennifer Ehle), the second eldest child. She is smart and pretty (though she is described as not being nearly as pretty as Jane, the eldest), and doted on by her father. She says she will only marry for love though she seems to understand that at least one of the daughters must marry someone who has money else the entire family suffer.
She is courted by various men throughout but it is Mr. Darby (Colin Firth) for whom she gives the most attention. He is quite handsome and very wealthy, the proprietor of Pemberly, a large estate. He is a gentleman, a great follower of social codes, quiet and awkward in social situations, tending to stand quietly in the corner. This gives him an aloof quality, making others think he is proud and snobbish. When he does speak, he speaks his mind, often solidifying those feelings in others. He is so in sync with social codes that when he declares his love to Elizabeth he can only note that it is a terrible idea, that she is beneath his station, and that it goes against every fiber of his being. When she does not accept his proposal, he is dumbfounded. Of course, they eventually do come together but not until the end and after much ado. I say "of course" but in point of fact, I had somehow come to the idea that they did not come together by the story's end. My impression was that it concluded with them being in love but unable to actually marry for one reason or another. I was pleasantly surprised by its actual happy ending.
Colin Firth is wonderful in the role. We believe, as Elizabeth does, that he is rather ill-suited for her or anybody really in the early parts of the story. He is polite but unkind and far too proud. Yet there are hints of his inner kindness that the actor subtly displays. This is the role that made him a star and while he has gone on to make many more films and garnered numerous awards (including an Oscar and two BAFTAs), he has noted in interviews that he knows the first line of his obituary will be about Mr. Darcy. Jennifer Ehle is just lovely as Elizabeth Bennett. She is full of grace and kindness but not afraid to speak up for herself. The rest of the cast is terrific as well. Production wise, it is a very much a mid-'90s television series but they did shoot the exteriors on actual English estates, which give it plenty of beautiful scenery. One of the extras on this disk notes that these fine houses are now located very near military bases and they often were shooting very meaningful scenes only to have them ruined by a jet flying overhead.
So, yeah, much to my chagrin, I like Pride and Prejudice. I won’t say it made me a Jane Austen superfan but I’ll put her books on my list of things to read. I’ll partake in the numerous conversations my wife has about the series with her friends. It is a wonderful story full of humor and heart. I laughed. I teared up. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
It is still very much a story about well-to do people who are terribly upset that other well-to do people don’t love them. Perhaps it is my age but I now recognize that Austen is saying something different about class and gender than I first imagined. This story includes the very definition of patriarchy as it is men who decide the women’s fates in every way. Though this family live in a very fine house, which includes a substantial income, this will all go away when the father dies simply because he did not have a son. If one of the girls does not marry well, then they will literally find themselves without a home and destitute. Behind the romantic comings and goings is a very real drama that was a part of everyday life during this period.
This Blu-ray set gives very little information about the transfer. As far as I can tell, it is the same transfer previous Blu-ray editions were given. There is a very informative featurette about the restoration, but it seems as though it is the same featurette that came with those other releases. It does look and sound very good.
Extras include several making-of featurettes including info on adapting the book, about why this version is so popular and the difficulties the production team faced making the series. Again, as far as I can tell, all of these features have been replicated from previous versions.
If you are reading this, you likely already have thoughts about this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. You don’t really need mine. It is a much beloved classic with millions of fans all over the world. It does seem that this release is the same transfer as from previously releases with some of the extras included elsewhere as well. So if you already own it on Blu-ray, I cannot recommend a double dip. However if you don’t already own it, then this is an excellent release to add to your collection. And if, like me, you are a bit Jane Austen averse, then go ahead and give it a try. You might find, like I did, that you like it.