July 18 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death at 41 years old. Pointless debate swirls as to the cause of death. It was easy to die back then.
Your reviewer has no course-work or disciplined study of her written output. I like movies. But I managed to get through her big five novels: Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park; Emma; and, Persuasion. Nowadays she is pigeonholed primarily as a source of romantic longing and generally happy endings, but it was not ever thus. There is nothing to compare with her wit, wickedly sarcastic eye for human behavior, and, on occasion, wrenching pathos. That she could have written the better part of P&P by the time she was 21 speaks to an exceptionally agile mind and perhaps time on her hands.
As the married father of two daughters: one, an Austen fan, the other decidedly not, I was steeped in the filmed output that began as a BBC swell in the VHS 80s, became a tsunami in the mid-to-late 90s thanks to Emma Thompson, A&E, screenwriter Andrew Davies, Colin Firth's wet shirt, and Clueless, was strung along by a solid P&P soft re-boot with modern young actors in 2005, and then finally reclaimed somewhat by ITV/BBC in the oughts with a re-hash of the big five minus P&P plus Northanger Abbey. It probably reached its temporary ebb with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2015.
Herewith then, dear viewer, are the best filmed adaptations.
1. Persuasion 1995. BBC/WGBH/Sony Picture Classics
Everything that men can't stand about Austen is missing from this. Only 107 minutes with good energy and great actors, it adapts Austen's shortest and final novel with beautiful concision. Amanda Root as Anne Elliot begins the movie with the lost bloom of a 27-year-old, too beaten down to be a run-of-the-mill plucky heroine. Her family and friends convinced her to reject the indomitable Wentworth (a still young Ciaran Hinds) 8 years ago when he was just a penniless younger brother to local clergy.
Her feckless noble-born father, hilariously played by Michael Redgrave, empties the family coffers, and now the family must "retrench" to rented digs in Bath.
Wentworth returns a swaggering captain in the Navy; newly victorious against Napoleon and newly wealthy from booty, making women fan themselves and drop their hankies in all company. He is initially cool and almost cruel regarding Anne’s reduced circumstances and “greatly altered” appearance, but a series of crises energizes her sharp mind and wide streak of competence and decency. Her progression to a renewed mojo and purpose, and his renewed appreciation of same is a romantic joy to watch. Natural candle lighting imparts intimacy and some measure of realism.
This trailer is awful. Ignore it’s tone.
Hall of Shame, Persuasion BBC 2007. The reliable Sally Hawkins is wasted on a nearly slapstick ending. This story should be easy to film.
2. Pride and Prejudice 1995 BBC/A&E
There's no dodging it, much as you may wish. After two previous BBC attempts in the 60s and 80s, and a ghastly 1940 movie version, BBC and A&E finally nailed it and completed the revivification of Austen that started with Persuasion above.
5 hours and 27 minutes of reasonably modern production values, stately pacing and - in Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and about a dozen memorable character actors - the best television acting you will ever see. Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet is definitive. Her filming schedule lasted 8 months (for context, Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara for about three months) and she is in almost every scene with countless close-ups. I never got tired of her despite the unfortunate period-appropriate wigs. Colin Firth as the almost irredeemably uptight Mr. Darcy brings facial expressions calibrated like a fine watch. Purists have complained that this Darcy is more revealed than redeemed, but in Firth's performance socially awkward young males may find a worthy model of determined self-improvement.
I won't sport with your intelligence by recounting the plot, but screenwriter Andrew Davies (who gave us the original British House of Cards and has an Executive Producer credit on the American version) adapts the exhausting novel almost flawlessly if not always faithfully. There is a solid dose of Austen's sly humor and dialog, but also real emotion as the pride and prejudice of the protagonists are ground down to finally make them good and decent enough for each other.
Another awful trailer.
Honorable mention: P&P 2005 with Keira Knightley. Hideous Americanized ending, but otherwise time-efficient and almost breathless adaptation with stylishly trashy sets, and beautiful exteriors.
The 1980 BBC version has some admirable qualities but poor Elizabeth Garvie is completely overmatched in the Elizabeth Bennet role and the production is clunky and one-note with mystifying unfunny additions to the book. Future horror star Claire Higgins was 25 when she was supposed to play spirited teenager Kitty Bennet. It didn't work.
3. Sense and Sensibility BBC 2008.
I don't suggest this to be controversial, since most would probably leap to Emma Thompson's 1995 version, but this 3-hour BBC adaptation is wonderful.
Austen's first major published novel is hilarious in spots but in some ways has the darkest melodramatic moments. A newly widowed mother and three daughters find themselves disinvited from her deceased's wealthy estate and must go to live in a very modest cottage at the behest of a distant cousin. Here they have to start over with little but their beauty and some good-hearted if rustic friends.
19 year old daughter Elinor is the kindly and reserved adult of the house, keeping the exceptionally beautiful and spirited middle sister Marianne and their coddled mother in check, until they all fall in love one way or another with the dastardly local nobleman Willoughby who nearly "ruins" Marianne. The hysterical unquenchable sadness of the jilted Marianne is beautifully written by Austen with none of her usual irony and wit, so that one suspects this was either closely observed in another or experienced brutally first hand.
Hattie Morahan as Elinor and Charity Wakefield as Marianne remind us of Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the lead roles but they're generally more appealing and come off as the very young women that the characters are supposed to be. Thompson was 41 when she made her version and had to advance Elinor to 27 to make it work. But Elinor is a notable character precisely because of her youthful good Sense.
The supporting cast is fantastic. Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast dreamboat Dan Stevens is acceptable as Elinor's morose and plodding boyfriend Edmond Farrars. David Morrissey of Walking Dead semi-fame is the honorable Colonel Brandon, Dominic Cooper is the best Willoughby by far and even Harry Potter’s Mark Williams is good.
Andrew Davies is the screenwriter again. This is beautiful dramatic work and I think a little under-appreciated in the canon. And there's even a duel with swords! And it's in the book!
Honorable mention: Thompson's witty 1995 version, of course. Simpering Hugh Grant is all wrong as Edmond, but this is otherwise serviceable.
Hall of Shame: The 1981 BBC version is barely competent, and dull.
4. Emma A&E/PBS 1996.
There's really not a bad version of Austen's funniest book, except maybe the 4-hour 1972 BBC version. Gwenneth Paltrow’s version is tolerable. The 2009 BBC version with Romola Garai is fine and thorough. It’s hard to go wrong.
But this 1996 Beckinsale version is superior thanks to its brevity and a lovely natural performance by Ms. Beckinsale before she decided to waste her skills on the Underworld franchise. This Emma is really young and thoughtless and more worth the redemption. Olivia Williams is breathtaking as Jane Fairfax and Bernard Hepton near the end of his career is quite funny. The ubiquitous Mark Strong makes a suitably grown up, brusque, and not overly attractive Mr. Knightley.
Honorable mention: Clueless.
5. Mansfield Park. BBC. 1983
Conversely, there’s not a great version of what was reportedly Austen’s personal favorite book. Evidence suggests it is unfilmable. Six solid chapters in the middle are an interminably detailed description of rehearsals for a play that never actually happens.
The story features two female leads; the heroine, wounded and halting Fannie Price, and the anti-heroine Mary Crawford, vivacious and selfish. In her we find arguably Austen’s best character study, and she remains recognizable today. Always on the cusp of genuine kindness and decency but always undercutting her own happiness with a self-written narrative of stylishly damaged worldliness.
If you’re up to it, this version covers the entire book soup to nuts in about 5 hours and features a sublimely weird and sympathetic Fannie in Sylvestra Le Touzel (her real name). Jackie Smith-Wood as Mary is okay but this character demands a lot of charisma and she comes up short, thanks in part to an awful wig, and, as was so often the case with middle-period BBC, being too old for the part. The shot-on-video quality is unfortunate and BBC’s dogged devotion to natural sound and unnatural lighting is a humorous distraction.
There simply is no trailer available. Sorry. I once wrote an enormous 13-clip video review at my old blog, but BBC and Youtube made me take them down. Even a 23-second clip I uploaded recently was blocked. A completely forgotten shot-on-video footnote can’t stand that kind of free coverage. Someone might actually watch it.
Honorable mention: Mansfield Park. ITV/PBS 2007 version. Cheaply made with a tossed off feel and shoddy character development, but it features flashing-eyed Hayley Atwell as the best Mary Crawford ever put to film. 120 minutes. biddy-bang, biddy-boom.
Hall of Shame: Mansfield Park. Arts Council/BBC 1999. Patricia Rozema’s wretched attempt to teach Austen a lesson about slave rape, patriarchy with a touch of incestuous desire, with egregious slow motion. Frances O’Connor is cast as Fanny Price but she plays the character like a sassy Elizabeth Bennet with one eyebrow permanently arched. This misses every possible point. Avoid.
6. Northanger Abbey 2007 BBC
I don't know the book. It was the first that Austen tried on her own to publish but it often isn't lumped in with the big 5. There are several filmed versions nonetheless. This has Andrew Davies yet again for 90 minutes of screenwriting. Extremely predictable and light-hearted, it briefly tells the story of young Catherine Morland who is addicted to the 18th century equivalent of “bodice ripper” novels - the sort that Austen probably giggled over as a teenager.
When Catherine is unexpectedly invited to visit the large estate of a charming second son of a glowering old general, her fevered imagination begins to suspect the general of murdering his wife and she nearly destroys her own chance at romance. This version rides entirely on the fine acting of the two leads, Felicity Jones, 9 years before Star Wars Rogue One, as Catherine, and JJ Feild as Henry. They are delightfully expressive and funny and that's about it.
30 second trailer. PBS/BBC still don’t understand Youtube as a marketing tool.