A few weeks ago I finally got around to watching this six-part BBC miniseries (total actual running time five hours) that’s widely considered the best and most faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s best-known novel, Pride and Prejudice. It’s also the one that started the craze for Jane Austen adaptations for film and television. The cast, while pretty uniformly excellent, is largely unknown to American audiences except of course for Colin Firth, who plays Mr. Darcy. (Some might also recognize Julia Sawalha as the youngest and most clueless of the Bennett sisters, since she played Safron on Absolutely Fabulous, a British comedy series popular in the U.S.)
Incidentally, while women I know describe Firth as a smoldering, brooding, and immensely attractive Darcy, this came as a surprise to a lot of people. In fact, when Firth told his own brother he’d just got the part, his brother reportedly said in puzzlement, “I thought Darcy was supposed to be sexy.” (Then again, I suppose what counts is what women think, and if they had better taste I’d never have dated the women I’ve known over the years. Granted, their tastes have grown more discerning in recent years at least where I’m concerned…)
Susannah Harker plays the eldest sister, the beautiful Jane, whose only flaw is in seeing the best in everyone except, it seems, Mr. Darcy. Jennifer Ehle (the last name is apparently pronounced “Ee-lee,” though I’ve also heard it said “Ell”) portrays Elizabeth Bennet, the next eldest and the novel’s heroine. Elizabeth is only a little less lovely than Jane but rather more skeptical of others’ motives. Curiously, the only scenes that rang a bit false to me were a few between Jane and Elizabeth in which their shared laughter seems forced, but otherwise they’re excellent.
As are the rest of the cast, notably including Benjamin Whitlow as the amusingly cynical and ironic Mr. Bennet and Alison Steadman as the hysterical (in every sense!) Mrs. Bennett. Incidentally, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great aunt of Anna Chancellor, who plays Mr Bingley’s obnoxious sister (and would-be Mrs Darcy), was Jane Austen.
The series became an unexpected huge hit around the world and prompted all manner of references in later works. For example, Helen Fielding based the character of Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary on Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy (and obviously gave him the same last name as well), then in the movie version of Bridget Jones’s Diary they went so far as to cast Colin Firth in the role.
Lost in Austen — an excellent fantasy film about a modern-day Jane Austen fan who finds herself transported into the world of Pride and Prejudice, makes numerous references to this miniseries, and at one point the heroine persuades “her” Mr. Darcy to reenact a famous scene involving a wet shirt (unfortunately not hers).
I watched the fairly recent Blu-ray version, which features a much-improved transfer from the original camera negative, and the additional detail over the older DVD is striking. Extras, which for once are actually worth watching, include interviews with cast members looking back on the production after several years and an ad-lib walk around one of the original exterior shooting locations featuring the actors who played the charming cad Mr. Wickham (Adrian Lukas) and Elizabeth’s books sister Mary (Lucy Briers). The two of them prove to be very likable and entertaining people and I recommend watching that brief segment if you get a chance.
Oddly enough I can’t find a decent trailer on line and to my mind random clips don’t do it justice, but if you like you can check out the official YouTube channel for the series: