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A 'Pride and Prejudice' Worth Revisiting
September 26, 2020  | By David Hinckley
 


Only a handful of authors, including some guy named Shakespeare, rival Jane Austen for performance longevity.

And Austen didn't even write plays. She wrote novels, like Pride and Prejudice, whose 1995 incarnation as a BBC-produced miniseries sparked a movie remake, multiple spoofs, and the whole Bridget Jones series of modern valentines.

And here's the best news. The 1995 miniseries, also known to some as the Colin Firth (top) wet shirt show, has returned to the streaming service Britbox, in a remastered 25th anniversary edition.

If you saw the 1995 miniseries and loved it, this is a good chance to love it all over again. If you've never seen it, well, you will love it.

Jennifer Ehle (top) plays Elizabeth Bennet, Austen's heroine, and Firth plays Fitzwilliam Darcy, who starts out as her sparring partner and gradually becomes something else.

Austen, who died in 1817, quite likely never heard the term romantic comedy. She was writing novels of manners and relationships. Today it's okay to call Pride and Prejudice a romantic comedy, though that doesn't capture its full scope.

To summarize the well-known plot too quickly, Elizabeth Bennet is a smart, good-hearted 20-year-old who has four sisters and no brothers in an age when marrying off your daughters "well" was the primary goal of women like her mother, Mrs. Bennet (Alison Steadman).

Elizabeth's older sister and best friend, Jane (Susannah Harker), catches the eye of the wealthy Mr. Bingham (Crispin Bonham-Carter), though it takes a while for the logistics to sort themselves out.

Mr. Bingley's best friend is Mr. Darcy, whose wealth is exceeded only by his condescending attitude toward pretty much the rest of the world. He's a handsome devil, however, and he turns out to have an admirable side, which emerges gradually through a series of encounters with Elizabeth.

These two potential romances could be story enough, except Austen also creates charming secondary characters and storylines.

Mr. Bennet (Benjamin Whitrow) is memorable for the infinite patience he shows both with his daughters and with his drama-prone wife.

The other sisters, notably the airheaded Lydia (Julia Sawalha), get their own subplots, some of which involve foolish friends and relations that Austen clearly enjoyed lampooning.

One of her prime targets is Mr. Collins (David Bamber), a pompous dolt of a preacher. A slightly more oily one is Mr. Darcy's military colleague, Mr. Wickham (Adrian Lukis).

Several potentially dire occurrences arise from all this, requiring acts of selflessness and courage to set them right. It's all rather upbeat in the end, though there are multiple moments of uncertainty along the way.

The 1995 miniseries is widely considered the most satisfying Pride and Prejudice adaptation, partly because it runs six parts, and that allows more of Austen's lovely nuances than the charming but shorter 2005 movie version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden.

This one is a little bit richer, and it showcases a traditional strength of BBC historical productions: visual lushness and the care given to touches like lighting.

It was adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies, who most recently scripted the ill-fated Sanditon, and Davies takes a few liberties with Austen's original concept. Most notably, that includes a scene where Elizabeth sees Mr. Darcy taking a fully-clothed dip in one of his estate's ponds, and rising from the water with his white shirt clinging to his torso.

Austen would never have written any such thing, and Firth, among others, thought it was ridiculous. That didn't stop it from becoming an iconic moment in historical fiction video history.

Ehle and Firth capture the characters so memorably that in many viewers' minds, they define them. The large supporting cast is uniformly solid, with particularly nice if brief turns by Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine De Bourgh, who doesn't want her nephew, Mr. Darcy, to marry this nobody Elizabeth, and Anna Chancellor as Caroline Bingley, Mr. Bingley's sister.

At a time when escape is a good idea, there aren't many better options than a return visit to Pride and Prejudice.

 
 
 
 
 
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