It's a strange and wondrous thing that the last twenty years has seen the writing of a woman whose been dead nearly two hundred years be adapted for film and television more often than any other writer either living or dead. During her too short life Jane Austen published only four books, and had two more published after her death. While her books must seem somewhat archaic to a modern audience, reflecting as they did the mores of her time, they would have been considered quite revolutionary at the time of their publication.
In the late 18th century and early 19th century when she lived the majority of popular writing was far more romantic, with the flamboyant tales of Sir Walter Scott being preferred by the reading public over her near realistic descriptions of life and love among the gentry. As is still often the case today, there were not many in her day who preferred to read about their own foibles when they could read about the romantic exploits of King Arthur or other idealized heroes.
Still her work persisted, and unlike the aforementioned Scott and his fellow Romantics, her work has stood the test of time and she is now one of the most widely read female writers in the English language. Even today there are very few authors who have managed to create such beloved characters as those who inhabit Jane Austin's books, with Pride And Prejudice and the love story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy being arguably the best loved and most famous of them all.
The fact that of all her novels, Pride And Prejudice has been adapted probably more often to the stage and screen than perhaps her other books combined only serves to emphasis the chord that this story has struck with modern audiences. With everyone from Lawrence Oliver to Keira Knightly playing one of the two leads over the years it appears that every generation in the modern era has taken a stab at lifting the characters from the page to wander briefly among us.
But of all the productions, and all the actors who have taken on the rolls of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, the one that seems to have caught people's imaginations the most was the 1995 co-production between the Arts & Entertainment Network (A&E), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. At five hours in length this version of Pride And Prejudice was able to develop the dramatic potential of the novel to its fullest. All the humour, pathos, and insight of the novel remained intact as very little of the book had to be compressed or sacrificed because of time constraints.
The first time I watched this production I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle. The acting was universally outstanding, the sets and locations were not only spectacular, but appropriate for their occupants, and the set dances were immaculate in terms of their staging and for the edge to the energy that ran underneath them. The dances were the one place where the normal restraints of society were loosened and individuals stole what chances they could to exchange messages with those who were objects of their affections.
It's funny to think of supposedly staid Jane Austen as having sexual tension, but during the dances - where partners barely even touched each other - it was so thick that you could have cut it with a knife. The energy that crackled between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy was so strong that you could almost see the charge connecting them and it was amazing that anyone who moved between them wasn't charred to a crisp. Of course it wasn't just them starting fires as the whole room was charged with the energy of passion too long held in check.
Watching it again, more then ten years later, I was once again struck at how astounding the production was. In the interim I had seen various other adaptation of Austen's books, and only the production of Sense And Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman had come close to matching it for quality and emotional depth. Even that wonderful production suffered in comparison, as it felt constrained by the time limitations imposed on cinematic releases.
But when it comes down to it, Pride And Prejudice will only fly so high as it's Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy allow it to. In those days Colin Firth was not the household name he is now, it was in fact this production that catapulted him to stardom, and Jennifer Ehle was an unknown. Elizabeth is described as being full of life and spirited, with an independent nature that is in contrast to the normal behaviour for her time. Somehow Ms. Ehle manages to convey that energy and independence while portraying what is ostensibly a dutiful daughter. She appears on the surface a typical daughter, respectful of her parents and responsible in her duties as elder sister, but as Mr. Darcy finds out, cross her at your peril.
In some ways Colin Firth has a lot less to work with in Mr. Darcy, as he appears to be merely another typically emotionally repressed Englishman. Aristocratic by birth, he is far less inclined toward the snobbery and prejudices that typify his class and less inclined to judge people by what they are as opposed to how they account for themselves. This doesn't stop him from being arrogant, or at least coming across as arrogant, in his dealings with others, which is what initially sets Elizabeth against him.
What makes Mr. Firth's performance so astounding is how he lets both the audience and Elizabeth begin to see under Mr. Darcy's mask. It is so subtle that we wouldn't even realize that his attitude towards her is undergoing a change except for a gradual relaxing of his lips and eyes when he glances at her. Of course it becomes even more obvious when he rides to the rescue of Elizabeth's younger sister, from an unwise elopement, in order to spare the family from the taint of scandal before the inevitable can happen and she is left pregnant and alone.
Both actors have created such letter perfect characters, that watching the inevitable unfold has never been so enjoyable. In fact they are both so believable that even knowing what will happen in the end, I was beset with doubt as to the ending up until the final resolution. Of course the rest of the cast are every bit as effective in their roles, otherwise the production wouldn't succeed, but it is Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett who this universe revolves around and they are the stars in its firmament.
For those of you, like me, who believe this version of Pride And Prejudice to be one of the best made, A & E's special Tenth Anniversary package of the series is a wonderful memento of a brilliant piece of television. You not only get the entire five hours of the series on two discs, they've prepared a third disc of special features including the Jane Austen episode of the A & E series Biography, and a special tenth anniversary feature that recounts the making of the series that includes interviews with some of the actors, the producer, the composer, and others who were involved with the production.
They've also included a companion book to the series that was originally published by Penguin when the show first appeared. The Making of Pride and Prejudice is co-authored by the shows producer Sue Burtwistle. Its full of colour photographs of the shoot in the making as well as details of all the nitty gritty that it took to get such a huge operation filmed and to television screens. Unlike a lot of books of this type this is not merely a "fan" letter and it gives the reader a very good overview of the work involved from securing financing to painting props and making sure the extras get their coffee breaks (well maybe not the last bit, but you get the picture).
It's all been beautifully packaged as is appropriate, and you can purchase it directly from the A &E Catalogue. If you have never seen this production of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice then you owe it to yourself to see it now, and if you've already seen it, consider that's it's probably time to see to it anew and be amazed at its brilliance all over again.
(Originally posted December 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.