Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Pride and Prejudice" (1995)

**As promised, here is my second review for "Pride and Prejudice Week" review of the universally acclaimed 1995 BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice."  Between this and my review (to be posted tomorrow) of the 2005 film version, I can't see how I will escape unscathed.**

"Pride and Prejudice" is one of the most recognized titles in English literature.  It is also one of the most adapted. From the first black-and-white film adaptation released in 1940 (starring Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy), to the 2001 hybrid "Bridget Jones' Diary," to the 2003 adaptation placing the story in contemporary Utah (!), and the 2004 Bollywood effort "Bride and Prejudice" (starring the "most beautiful woman in the world," Aishwarya Rai). The novel has spawned six separate BBC miniseries, the earliest released in 1938.  The most famous of those, which is also the most famous adaptation of the novel by far, is the 1995 miniseries written by Andrew Davies.

It is hard to do justice to this adaptation. It has received (and deserved) so many compliments, that it has become quite a challenge to compose an original thought. It is also a thoroughly paradoxical adaptation: rigorously faithful to the novel in the screenplay, for which it has received a good deal of praise, while at the same time reducing many of the minor characters to one-dimensional caricatures played for laughs, which is not so faithful to the book but nevertheless receives praise from the same sources. Finally, it is also a marathon six hours in length, and thus requires a good deal of endurance merely to watch.

The 1995 miniseries is one of my favorite literary adaptations, and one of my favorite adaptations of Austen. I cannot give it a superlative, simply because there are (admittedly minor) aspects that dissatisfy me, and with six hours at its disposal, I am rather more inclined to expect perfection. This may be unfair, but it will certainly allow for a more interesting review, than one that merely heaps praise on a work already swollen with it.

I take it as a general rule, that where a work is viewed with nearly universal regard, it is far more interesting to me to write of its faults, and that when a work is treated with general disdain, it becomes far more valuable to seek out its merits.

The two leads have received a good deal of praise for their performances, and they richly deserve it. Jennifer Ehle is the definitive Elizabeth Bennet, though her performance is perhaps a bit more muted than I would have interpreted the character. She conveys the propriety of a Regency woman, and the sweetness we expect in a heroine, but her portrayal lacks the almost cynical streak we might expect from a character who at one point states: "There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it." By the end of the novel, the astute reader will have noted that Lizzie really is quite similar in temperament to Mr. Darcy, both in positive and negative aspects. Their conversational sparring shows them equal in observation and quick wit; and in the aftermath of Darcy's first abortive proposal both he and Lizzie realize how greatly they had each been blinded by vanity. In light of such similarities, it is quite interesting to note how differently they are portrayed on screen: Lizzie's character is a good deal softened, while Darcy's is anything but.

The miniseries follows the perspective of Lizzie very closely, to the point where we largely see the other characters from her perspective. In practice, this means that each character seems to act out Lizzie's impression of them.  Thus, Darcy and very every other minor character are cast in an almost simplistic or one-dimensional light, and only given occasional moments to express the true depth of their natures.

From the moment he emerged sopping wet from a lake, Colin Firth was firmly established as the definitive Fitzwilliam Darcy. I cannot dispute his masterful performance. Firth is given just enough screen time to craft a multidimensional character out of those few subtle moments he was allowed. But, just as I found a chink in Jennifer Ehle's armor, so will I readily point out Firth's vulnerability. This one is, indeed, quite a bit easier to spot. After all, by the end of the novel, we are made to realize that "Indeed he has no improper pride" and Mr. Darcy was reserved simply because he is shy and lacks social grace. It is sometimes amusing to note how often this is forgotten by casual readers, and rather depressing to see how often it is missed by Austen loyalists who should know better.

I think our mistaken impression of Darcy is the fault of Andrew Davies' script, who initially portrays Darcy from Lizzie's first impression. Thus, Firth is made to play the character as essentially proud, more self-satisfied than socially awkward, even though the novel later clarifies that the latter is his true nature, and that the former is merely arose as a false impression from confirmation bias, due to Lizzie's wounded feelings. By the middle of the novel, after Darcy's proposal, Lizzie begins to realize her mistake and grasp Darcy's true character, at the same time that Darcy makes a renewed effort to master the social graces. When they next meet in the miniseries, Firth's performance is so drastically different that in the end he really has played two separate characters. The second Darcy, the man whose charms are perhaps even exaggerated in the light of Lizzie's growing affection for him, is a very different sort of creature than the first Darcy whose very presence had been so odious to her. Colin Firth is hardly to blame for this, and indeed does masterful work at hinting at Darcy's true nature even while being bound by the mistakes of the script. But he cannot overcome the false impression that has unfortunately become the consensus opinion of Darcy's character.

While Darcy is given enough screen time to overcome the simplistic characterizations of the script, the minor characters simply are not. Mrs. Bennet is depicted as a shrill insolent woman who gives offense to everyone and causes nothing but embarrassment to her more sensible daughters. Mr. Bennet is a withdrawn man who enjoys nothing so much as laughing at his wife and daughters, and only demonstrates fatherly affection in the occasional conversation with Lizzie. Jane is all goodness and perfection, Mary is all vanity and awkwardness, Kitty is a mere addendum to Lydia, and Lydia is simply silly.  To be quite honest, the portrayals of Jane and Lydia hardly depart from the tenor of the books, but Mary and Kitty are much more interesting characters than they are portrayed on screen.  Kitty has never been adequately captured on film, and for Mary I must give credit to the 2005 film, which did a masterful job of showing her true nature with very limited time. The other minor characters -- Mr. Collins, Charlotte Lucas, Miss Bingley, Mrs. Hurst, Mr. Hurst, Colonel Fitzwilliam,  Georgiana Darcy, even Mr. Bingley -- are all given short shrift, and most of those are played for laughs. I will get in trouble for this next sentence, but here goes: I cannot think of one performance that adequately captures the complexity of the characters as Austen wrote them. Only Mr. Wickham, the debonair demon himself, is given a multidimensional character, and that is simply because Lizzie's opinions of him change at the same time her opinions of Darcy change. While I understand the centrality of the love story between Lizzie and Darcy, and understand the centrality of Lizzie's character in that story, the 1995 adaptation's treatment of virtually every other character in the piece is lacking.  It accurately portrays the events of the narrative, but the participants in those events are made into stick figures, barely discernible as human and more easily recognized as caricature.

Jane Austen's greatest gift was the ability to craft real characters. Everything in her stories depend on that; every event hinges on that. The narrative falls apart if the characters are not accurate. Georgiana is shy so Lizzie can discover that Mr. Darcy is shy as well; Georgiana is eager to be pleased by Lizzie to show that Mr. Darcy had spoken to her of his feelings for Lizzie. Miss Bingley is arrogant so that Lizzie may be convinced that the whole party is intolerably vain; she is infatuated with Mr. Darcy so that Lizzie may dismiss her cruel words as simple jealousy, and more easily rehabilitate her good opinion of the party and of Darcy's character. Mr. Bingley is naturally humble so he may be persuaded by Darcy that Jane does not care for him; he is naturally energetic so that, when assured of Jane's love, he will shortly thereafter propose (conveniently removing the last impediment to Lizzie marrying Darcy).  The events naturally flow from the characters.

The 1995 miniseries preserves most of those events, but only retains the characters insofar as their personalities contribute to those events depicted. Now that I think of it, it was almost essential for the miniseries to end with a wedding, rather than allow for a more complete depiction of the happy endings for the other characters. After all, how can we conceive of a happy ending for Charlotte Collins, née Lucas, married as she is to a disgusting self-righteous snob without any trace of the good nature that is conveyed in the novel?  How can we fathom a happy marriage for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, since she is so clearly established as ridiculous and he is so far withdrawn from his family? There are no happy endings for these characters, because the miniseries did not do the groundwork of making them real and complex people. It must end with a wedding, because Lizzie, Darcy, Jane and Bingley are the only four people who can possibly be happy at the end of it.

It may be thought, in light of my rather harsh criticism, that I did not appreciate this miniseries.  That is hardly the case.  As I said, it is one of my favorite adaptations of any of the Austen novels, and is as close to a perfect reflection of the original novel as has ever been captured. My criticism arises rather because of that perfection, rather than because of the imperfections: it comes so close, that any faults must stand out in far greater relief than in a lesser effort. Even though the characterizations are inadequate, they still capture much of the original personalities that Austen described, and everything else about the miniseries is spectacular. I didn't much like the cinematography -- mostly because it was so sedentary, so lacking any sort of panache -- but the script is wonderful, the settings are beautiful, and the soundtrack is exquisite. There is a delightful epigram from "Northanger Abbey": "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." I would not go so far (nor would Mr. Tilney, as he was being facetious) but the point stands: it may take a well-developed literary palate to fully appreciate, but this miniseries remains an indelible treat.

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