Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Pride and Prejudice" (1995)

**This article was contributed by Cinema Muse in response to the review of the 1995 BBC miniseries "Pride & Prejudice" posted earlier this week.**

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog Seeing Sepia will remember that this adaptation made #1 on my list of Top 10 Most Faithful Movie Adaptations from Novels of All Time. I did not give that award out lightly as a film buff and lover of classic literature. Of course I realize it's not perfect, since no adaptation can be, but I still don't think some of the charges Publius has made against it are entirely fair. Please bear in mind that he esteems it almost as much as I do, and he should by no means be lampooned for daring to find fault with it. It is not my intention to question his right to find fault with it, as indeed he is correct in saying that is overall stellar quality gives us license to concentrate on the minutiae. In that spirit, therefore, I mount my defense.

British-American actress Jennifer Ehle handles the complex character of Elizabeth Bennett with just the right amount of sweetness and cynicism.
I will start with his slight objection to Jennifer Ehle's portrayal of Elizabeth. In it he says that Elizabeth's cynical streak had been softened somewhat, but I don't think that's so. I think she gives plenty of looks in the film that show just how weary she is of hypocrisy and injustice, especially when Lydia's elopement comes up. Consider during that episode when she hears that Lady Lucas has given assistance several times: "Assistance is impossible and condolence insufferable! Let her triumph over us at a distance and be satisfied!" I think that's about as cynical as you can get. Also, you don't want Lizzie's cynicism to be too prominent, lets she lose the mirth for which we love her.

Publius also claims that because the production is shot so much from Elizabeth's perspective, all the other characters seem one-dimensional. I will grant him that in part. Many of the characters do seem one-dimensional, but I would argue that Mr. Darcy does not suffer from this problem nor does Mr. Bennett to a certain degree.

I actually like that we get to see the characters from Lizzie's perspective for the most part. It means that our reactions coincide more with her own. After all, if we don't agree with her condemnation of Darcy in the beginning, we would lose sympathy with her subsequent treatment of him. I think experiencing the narrative largely through Lizzie's eyes gives us a softer view of Mr. Bennett, and a harder one on just about everyone else, Jane notwithstanding. Mr. Darcy, of course, averts this problem partially because we have the few scenes from his POV that reveal his true affection for Elizabeth. Still, however, we are given little hint that his appearance of  haughtiness is partially due to shyness apart from a few instances of him being tongue-tied in Lizzie's presence, which could be easily attributed simply to his being in love. Those scenes, however, combined with my foreknowledge of shyness being the novel's partial explanation of Darcy's actions were enough to produce that impression on me. At the same time, however, it's subtle enough that the nuance will still be lost on Elizabeth, which makes her assumption of pride more plausible.

I also know that the reason that some of the characters aren't as well-rounded as they should be is because the filmmakers wanted to make sure that the humor of their actions still came across, and I feel that this adaptation preserves the humor better than any other version of P&P. For those of you who haven't read it the book, it is laugh-out-loud funny, and this adaptation is the only one in which I find myself laughing at the same scenes and lines as I did in the book. That is a very high compliment indeed. Unfortunately this also means that the film short-changes some of the deeper aspects of these characters, especially Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins. I can excuse this, however, on the grounds that even though Jane Austen is renowned for well-drawn, rounded characters, her primary intent with them was to provide humor, and thus it is more important that they fulfill that function than that they appear well-rounded at the expense of the humor. It's sad that it has to be that way, but as Publius pointed out, even in a 6-hour miniseries, there simply isn't time to flesh out all the characters.

One thing that Publius got spot-on was that this version like all the others before it doesn't seem to know what to do with Mr. Collins. Of course I think this version's Collins is the funniest one of the bunch, but he's way too slimy and not quite dense enough to fit the character that Austen wrote. In fact he's so transparently a grasping sycophant that it's impossible to believe that Charlotte can even have a modicum of contentment with him. And speaking of Charlotte, she's a character that isn't nearly explained well enough so that she comes off mercenary. This version shows that she's certainly as smart as Lizzie and doesn't have the looks to catch a man, but her lack of fortune and spinster status are never alluded to, and thus leave the audience as shocked as Lizzie when the engagement is announced.

As to Publius' claim that the cinematography lacked panache, I think first off that it exceeds all the previous BBC cinematography I've seen--but not subsequent--and secondly that it was made for TV not theaters, which means both budget and expectations were decidedly lower. I can easily excuse it because it so far above the home-video quality of the BBC Austen adaptations of the '70s and '80s as to be a positive breath of fresh air in comparision.
Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy perform the "up a double and back" figure from the English Country Dance "Mr. Bevridge's  Maggot," in a slowed tempo that emphasizes the stateliness and formality of their relationship and Mr. Darcy's personality.

Of the many good points that Publius spoke of, moreover, he failed to mention two of my favorites, namely the score and the dancing. The score is a mixture of period classical pieces, English Country Dance tunes, and original compositions by Carl Davies including the famous theme song. One thing I know that Publius and I both appreciate is how much of the music heard comes from Mozart. For example, Lizzie sings an aria from The Marriage of Figaro when she's at Pemberley, and the musical piece played as everyone arrives for the Netherfield Ball is from the wedding scene in that opera. In addition Mrs. Hurst plays another Mozart piano piece during the ballroom scene, and Lizzie plays another while she's at Rosings Park. This is particularly appropriate because Figaro and P&P are often compared to each other in terms of sparkling wit and social commentary. As for the dancing, I can say being an English Country Dancer myself that the dances are well-executed and are real Playford English Country Dances that existed at the time instead of being something the filmmakers created. That being said, many English Country Dance aficionados have pointed out that the dances chosen in the film were hopelessly outdated by the time of  P&P, but I think that's a minor point because it's still the same style of dance. It's not like the replaced it with the polka or the electric slide.

So yes, this film/miniseries does have some faults. Are they bad enough for me to retract the title of best novel-to-film adaptation ever? No. Until someone shows me one that captures all the events and the spirit of the novel as well as this one, I will still maintain that it is the most accurate I've ever seen.

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