A&E // 1995 // 323 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 2nd, 2009
Will true love's nature prevail?
One of the most celebrated and popular Jane Austen adaptations hits hi-def. Is this two-disc set a Darcy or a Wickham?
Our story begins in England in the early 19th Century. The Bennett Family has never been particularly rich, and they have never had much social status. Nonetheless, Mrs. Bennett (Alison Steadman, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) has high hopes that all of her daughters will marry into wealthy families, and spends the vast majority of her time scheming and plotting to involve her daughters in romantic relationships with men of status and wealth. Her two young daughters, Kitty (Polly Maberly, Gooseberries Don't Dance) and Lydia (Julia Sawalha, Chicken Run), are positively thrilled by the romantic adventures. Serious-minded Mary (Lucy Briers, Wives and Daughters) has no interesting in playing frivolous games of love. First-born daughter Jane (Susannah Harker, Surviving Picasso) approaches romance with a certain fateful serenity. Finally, there is Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle, Wilde), who has rather different notions about romance than the rest of her siblings. She does not believe that one should marry for money or status, but only for genuine love. Little does she know that she will soon be meeting with a wide variety of eligible bachelors, all of whom offer the potential of a comfortable life. The gentlemen include:
* Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter, Casino Royale), a wealthy and
cheerful man who likes the entire Bennett family a great deal.
* Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth, The Importance of Being Earnest), Bingley's extremely well-to-do friend; though his personality is rather icy and rigid.
* Mr. Wickham (Adrian Lukis, Peak Practice), a military officer who claims to have been wronged by Mr. Darcy in the past.
* Mr. Collins (David Bamber, Valkyrie), a minister intent on marrying Elizabeth simply because he wants a wife, and she seems as good as any other woman available to him.
Will any of these men win the heart of Elizabeth Bennett? If so, will the complicated circumstances created by society permit a romance between Bennett and her chosen man to take place?
In my household, when I speak of Jane Austen, I must proceed with caution. You see, I've never been a huge fan of Austen's work. I've read several of her novels, seen far too many film and television adaptations of her work, and even watched a couple of documentaries and a couple of feature films about the life of the noted writer. To put it bluntly, I've just about had my fill. For the most part, the Austen novels and films have done very little for me. Sure, they are modestly entertaining in their own way, but just so lacking in substance and reality that I've always had a bit of trouble with most of them.
My wife, on the other hand, is a devoted fan of all things Austen. I may consider myself to be fairly well-versed in Austen's world, but my wife's knowledge of such things makes mine look absolutely pathetic. Her favorite Austen book has always been Pride and Prejudice, which is more often than not the traditional favorite among Austen fans. I had been exposed to the much-acclaimed 1995 A&E television adaptation some years ago, and at the time I didn't think too much of it. However, I fell absolutely head over heels for Joe Wright's passionate 2005 cinematic adaptation of the story. Considering how much I loved that version, I looked forward to revisiting the 1995 version. Perhaps if viewed with a more open mind, I would come to appreciate it's virtues a bit more this time, and either way, my wife would be happy to have Pride and Prejudice in hi-def.
You know what? I liked it better this time around. In fact, I liked it considerably better, and was better able to appreciate for precisely what it was. For viewers such as myself, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice is more appealing because it emphasizes realism, cuts out a lot of the fat, delivering a passionate and well-told love story. However, it's easy to understand why Austen fans insist that this Pride and Prejudice is ("And always will be, mind you!") the definitive version of Austen's much-loved novel. This is an intensely faithful recreation of the novel, at times almost feeling like a scene-by-scene mirror image of the book. It's handsomely staged, and features a very professional cast delivering lines that Austen fans know by heart without ever missing a beat.
The strength of the book (and by default, this miniseries) lies in the romantic relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. As the strong-willed yet romantic Elizabeth, Jennifer Ehle turns in a very nuanced performance. She blends a built-in determination and free-spirited intelligence with a hesitation and sadness that seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of being born in the wrong era. There's a surprising sense of melancholy about her. Ehle's eyes are so expressive, capable of expressive both deep sorrow and unbridled excitement. She's an excellent actress, and it's a real shame that we haven't seen more of her in the post-Pride and Prejudice years.
If the miniseries didn't exactly work wonders for Ehle, it certainly gave the career of actor Colin Firth an enormous boost. I've always found it somewhat unusual that Darcy has often been held up as the ideal romantic catch over the course of time, particularly when one considers that shades of the character that Firth accentuates here. Now, I know some will positively despise me for saying this, but: Darcy is a supreme jerk for the entire first half of the miniseries. "Oh," you might protest, "No, he just has suppressed romantic feelings, and his wealth and status have made him fearful of breaking out of his cold shell!" I don't know. I think Darcy is a rather cold-hearted snob who looks upon the lower classes with a condescending contempt (until he meets the remarkable Elizabeth and does the best he can to change his ways). Firth is icy enough early on to make some viewers hate him, but somehow manages to become extraordinarily likable by the final act. It's an interesting take on the character that works terrifically.
The previous DVD release was generally unimpressive in terms of video quality, and I had hopes this Blu-ray release would improve upon the image considerably (particularly when I noticed that the disc included a featurette on the restoration of the miniseries). Unfortunately, this series looks extraordinarily weak when one considers that it was made as early as 1995. The image is very grainy throughout. The level of grain is moderate at best, atrocious at worst. Lots of little scratches and flecks are present throughout, and the level of detail isn't particularly impressive. On the plus side, flesh tones are far more accurate here than they were on the DVD release. To be fair, the miniseries was shot on 16mm film, so one can hardly expect perfection. The 2.0 audio gets the job done without ever really becoming impressive, though the charming Carl Davis score sounds particularly crisp and clean. For some reason, the Region 2 Blu-ray disc received a new 5.1 mix, but this one does not.
On the positive side, this set outshines the region 2 release in the extras department, by retaining the original hour-long making-of documentary that appeared on the DVD. "Lasting Impressions" features interviews with pretty much everyone from the cast and crew except stars Firth and Ehle (too bad). A much more casual pair of interviews can be found in the 10-minute "An Impromptu Walkabout with Adrian Lukas and Lucy Briers." Two new featurettes are included here. The most substantial is "Turning Point," a 30-minute interview session with writer Andrew Davis and costume designer Dinah Collin. Less meaty (but still worth a look) is a five-minute featurette on the restoration of the film with Vince Narduzzo. This featurette effectively highlights the challenges of restoring this miniseries from the original source material.
It's been pointed out by many others, but the performance of Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennett is problematic. I realize the character is hardly a creation of great complexity to begin with, but Steadman's screeching, one-note take on the character comes close to being insufferable after a while. Additionally, I think the performance of David Bamber as Mr. Collins is amusing, but a bit too broad and over-the-top. The character would have been more credible if Bamber had dialed it down a notch or two. Just contrast the work of Steadman and Bamber here to the work of Brenda Blethyn and Tom Hollander in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, and you'll see solid examples of how these roles can be successfully handled.
Ordinarily such a weak hi-def transfer would prevent me from recommending an upgrade, but when one considers the horrendous DVD transfer fans have had to deal with up to this point, this set shines in comparison. Have at it, ye Austen fans, because this is likely as good a Pride and Prejudice release as we're going to get.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 323 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated