2. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
So you've survived the least painful toe dip into Austen. It got you where you wanted to be, so to speak, and now you're feeling a bit cocky and charged up ready to face whatever this tiny slice of Regency-era Britain can throw at you. Likely, you are under pressure to commit to the 1995 BBC/A&E version of "Pride and Prejudice".
Cuidado!! You are about to enter a minefield where the slightest dramatic deviation from a book you haven't read is likely to put your partner into full-on daisy-cutter mode. Be prepared for in-depth sidebar chatter about how they've given a favorite Austen line to the wrong character or used it at the wrong time, etc. Tolkein fans have NOTHING on Austen fans when it comes to carping about the details. Screenwriter Andrew Davies is clever enough to fit in most Austen fans' favorite bits, but he had to cut and paste quite a bit. However, this version certainly follows the book (61 chapters!!) in broad outline, for better or for worse, and gets many of the details right. Quibbles abound. We will touch on a few over this 6-hour monstrosity, save, I get tired. Remember, however teared up your partner is, this is a comedy of manners.
For context, Jennifer Ehle spent 8 months filming in character as Elizabeth Bennet. Vivien Leigh knocked out Scarlett O'Hara in 5 months or less. Leigh got to shoot a guy, whip a horse, slap a slave, crawl in the dirt, kiss Clark Gable (she complained about his breath), but Ehle just has to act and react. There are no more than 5 scenes across 6 hours in which she does not appear. She gets to skip down a trail, once, and break into a run (not in the book!), twice. Ehle is a somewhat blowsy blonde born in North Carolina who apparently spent some years in English finishing schools. We just have to overlook her physical non-resemblance to Austen's "light-framed" heroine and marvel at her ability to act with just her voice, her T-zone (eyes, nose, mouth), and wigs. In her acceptance speech, she jokingly offered part of her BAFTA Best Actress honors to her wigs. I assume they are period-appropriate because Lord, they are so ugly. The similarly accurate high-waisted dresses make all the women look like little girls squeezed down into large cardboard toilet paper tubes with boobs poking out at the top.
The producers wisely make the five Bennet sisters all physically very different, so you can tell them apart, and not at all glamorous. And they are supposed to be the county beauties. So, in short, not much to look at here. Tough it out.
Back to Ehle. There are some scenes where her voice shifts from soft to sharp to somewhat thick with emotion in an amazingly natural way. You've heard your mother do this. Her facial expressions are maybe 5% too actressy, but so much of the drama and comedy depends on her eyes to carry the action that you really can't blame her. I think the trick is that while she speaks the Queen's English in a nice voice and handles Austen's graduate school dialogue with aplomb, her expressions are just tinged with enough modern wryness that we appreciate them without quite seeing them. And when she finally gets to cry in about hour 5, she is so convincing you'd have thought someone was strangling a cat off-screen.
So about our story. The Bennets are landed gentry with a small self-supporting estate. The father is an early retired country lawyer with a wry sense of humor and an almost abusive relationship with his wife, who is too dim to be a harridan, but is more an extremely noisy Aunt Pitty-Pat. Allison Steadman is so shrill and animated that many genuine fans fast-forward through her parts if they choose to watch again.
Since they have 5 daughters and no sons, the estate will be "entailed away" to Mr. Bennet's cousin Mr. Collins, when Mr. Bennet dies, leaving the 5 daughters mostly penniless and completely dependent on their good fortune in marriage or becoming governesses. Since they've had limited training in the things that make a good governess - painting, drawing, stitching, piano, languages - their hopes come down to marriage. The younger three are "very silly girls" and the youngest, Lydia, is simply wild or has, in Austen's tongue, "high animal spirits". The oldest, Jane, is considered the great beauty, blonde in this version, even blonder in the 2005 version, and is sweet and elegant. Our heroine Elizabeth is the second, the smartest and most accomplished, and in many ways the most engaging, but has a wicked tongue and an ability to get her dander up.
When the story gets moving, a friendly wealthy young man, Mr. Bingley, moves in to a nearby estate and immediately starts with the goo-goo eyes on Jane. All looks promising until his snootier sisters and much wealthier, and on first appearances almost demonic friend, Mr. Darcy, pass judgement on the whole country scene and especially the raucous and low Bennet family.
There is MUCH more to the story. It just goes and goes. There is the obsequious cousin Mr. Collins who is a newly minted curate attached to a wealthy estate. There is the charming and open-faced Mr. Wickham who just likes to be bad. There is Darcy's wounded little sister, his upperest crustest aunt with the manners of a pit bull, Lydia's poor decision making, and especially Elizabeth's "plain" friend Charlotte Lucas, expertly played by Lucy Scott.
All of this is sounding like the dreariest BBC fare, I know, but there is some salvation. Mr. Darcy is described by Austen - and I don't have any desire to confirm this by wading through the first several hundred pages again - as nothing more than "tall and fastidious", and later as maybe not quite as handsome as Mr. Wickham. Anywhooo, screenwriter Davies has brought Darcy forward in the story and given us a more robust view of his eventual conflicts. He is a prick, to say the least. But there is an inkling that circumstances have made him so deadly serious as to make it difficult for him to have any fun or take on new experiences. In the modern parlance, he is not good at transitions, and so strikes out if cornered or threatened. His genuine disdain in the early scenes, his deliberate insults of Elizabeth and her mother are all part and parcel with being a prick. Most refreshingly, he is not really haunted by some dark Gothic secret. There is no bride lost to suicide, no mother in an institution, no father in the poor house. He does not wander the moors at night. Some guy hit on his sister a while back but was rebuffed. Darcy is wealthy and young. He's just not very happy. I'm not sure that's all in the book, but Davies brings it out here. Finally, having gotten off on the worst possible foot, and while actively trying to separate his friend from the oldest of the hideous Bennets, he finds himself staring at Elizabeth rather more than is healthy.
A sharp-eyed Netflix reviewer "SB" observed that this Darcy is "more revealed than reformed". That could be a problem for Austen sticklers, but the enterprise is saved by...ACTING! We get the great Colin Firth as the secretly soulful Darcy. There is probably a book yet to be written about how much acting Firth manages with just his left eyelid and a catch in his throat. There is none of the self-conciously stagey eye-fluttering of a Peter O'Toole, just a closely calibrated reaction that barely reaches the eyes. I watch the early scenes for some indication of what is to come, but all I see is disdain for those around him. Yet as the story progresses Firth and especially the director, Simon Langton, slowly introduce humanity into the character in the most convincing ways. There are no scenes of him being kind to children or bouncing a puppy on his knee, or, the most tiresome device of all, helping a horse or cow give birth. (Truly, is there any BBC fare that doesn't feature our misunderstood hero pulling a slimy four-legged something into the world while the frigid heroine looks on and is transformed into Earth Mother?) Be that as it may, we really just get more of Firth playing pool, writing a letter, wandering around drawing rooms, and digging himself into a hole. The scene below is an example. One can see him squirm as he begins to defend and confess his sin of a "resentful" nature, but realizing he has exposed too much, he will man up and finish declaratively.
In the next scene below watch him again try a back-handed compliment, something like a joke, a confession, anything to ju-jitsu this head-on attacking woman. Also watch for Ehle's bared teeth. I wonder how long it took to get that scene right. And his expression as his aunt bellows from the next room is just priceless. We've all been there. He communicates it with his left eye.
And to belabor the point, in the scene below aside from Ehle's extraordinarily realistic struggle for self-control, notice how the moment Ehle says "you know him to well to doubt the rest", Firth literally shudders. It could look positively silly if it weren't so slight, but I think I saw this scene out of the corner of my eye when my daughters first got the DVD and after a second I thought, "what did he just do?", and had to go back to see. Yup, he shudders.
Screenwriter Davies gives Darcy three baptismal dunkings - (none in the book!) - each as he is transitioning. First he steps out of a bathtub, looks out a window to see Elizabeth playing with his Great Dane - with a lovely theme playing - second, after an anguished night of letter-writing he washes his face, puts out a candle with his fingers and walks out to face some music. And finally, at wits end, he dives into a favorite boyhood pond for a full-body baptism before emerging twice as soulful. (Reportedly they used a stunt man for fear Firth would snort a parasitic amoeba.) Heavy-handed but very effective.
And at least there is no fucking rain as a cheap stand-in for emotional import. Kurosawa did us no favors by adding rain to all his big finales. It's been abused ever since. See P&P 2005, for instance.
Elizabeth, in turn, gets three DeNiro-style long looks in the mirror. First, coquettishly checking her look before blowing out a candle, second, allowing herself a bit of wistfulness over what could have been, and third, care worn and fully adult, she blows out another candle and sits in darkness.
So why is the story, if not the book, worthwhile for men? 1) Darcy is redeemed not by the love of a "good woman" - any old country & western song will getcha there, but by the hatred of a worthy one. Brought to realize for the first time how little he is actually liked by most people, his response is adult and generous and even noble. And, refreshingly, there's no desparate sprint through an 18th century airport to catch his beloved, no flowers or songs or poetry. Just one generous act for a woman he respects and a whole bunch of people he doesn't. Nothing manlier than that.
2) Obviously the Bennet sisters predicament is in part due to the sexism of a few millenia (ho hum - got it), and due to the relative ease of collecting taxes from large, single-owner estates that pass only to eldest male relative, but more importantly, by the indolence (Austen's word) of their father and the foolishness of their mother. Elizabeth's final scene with her father is repeated a bilion times the world over, but what goes unremarked upon is the fact that they have dodged a bullet because of her efforts, not his. He remains intelligent but irresponsible to the end. That is useful pondering for any young man.
3) And this gets lost on those over-focused on the romance and those dismissive of chick-flickery, and is perhaps not emphasized in film versions as much as in the book, that is, Elizabeth's realization of the enormity of her error. She doesn't just misjudge the situation and a good person, she actively assists in his demonization, committing what would usually be called slander all over her home county. We shall let Austen herself close the loop,
"She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd. "How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities...Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."
So why is this the best of 3 serious film versions? (I dismiss the awful war-time film with Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson)
1) Davies' screenplay that keeps everything that everyone likes about Elizabeth, keeps most of Austen's best dialogue, but gives us a well drawn male character to latch on to. Most of us have been the out-of-his-depth Darcy, faced with an uncomfortable situation and responded by walking around the outside of the dance floor, glaring at everyone.
2) A genuine feeling of desparation on Elizabeth's part when she realizes that she is the only one who understands how much trouble her family is in. This is a comedy of sorts, but one false move and these young women will decend into something less than genteel poverty. That's not so well played in the other versions.
3) Ehle and Firth and a half dozen other great actors - there is no one ancient or modern to compare to them in carrying an almost action-free and almost tragedy-free romance around on their, well, faces. It's all in those faces.
Thousands of fan girls have posted clips on YouTube of the most famous scenes, with titles like "First Proposal", "Second Proposal", "The Letter", etc., sometimes with their own music soundtrack (yeesh). I have avoided those scenes here, because they are far better in context. But they are justly famous and beloved. Which brings us briefly to Director Langton and how the movie is edited. Everything feels like a straight-forward, front to back re-telling of the book. It's only upon reflection that one realizes how creatively it uses momentary flashbacks, sometimes from a different take to show the fallibility of memory, and voice-over flashback dialogue, (but never in an urgent, whispery way to cheaply convey feelings when good acting will suffice.) Far better than just having Elizabeth talk to herself. And the big emotional payoff scene is done on a bright, windy fall day, while walking by a rustling (unrealistically tall) corn field. Two slightly weary adults who finally have something in common. No smashface. Not even any hand-holding. No fucking rain.
So can you handle it? I wouldn't presume to say "yes" for you. Six hours, dude, and almost nothing recognizable as action. A couple horses, 20 seconds of bird hunting, 30 seconds of fencing practice (not in the book!), one or two heaving bosoms, not a fist-fight in sight, no swordplay, no pistols at dawn, nada. The first 3 hours is almost all set up. Funny and entertaining, but still set up. So my best advice is try going back to high school in your mind, and think about how great it was to sit in a theater next to the greatest gal in the world for 2 hours on a Friday night, and then say to yourself, "I've got 4 more hours of this."