Pride and prejudice: screen versions of Jane Austen’s novel

Pride and Prejudice is probably the quintessential Austen novel, the Jane Austen novel that more readers have read and enjoyed than any other. And the 1995 BBC film, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle is the epitome of films of Jane Austen stories. It runs for over 320 minutes, has a stellar cast, and portrays the plot in a completeness that no other film achieves. Pride and Prejudice is also the book that raises doubts in our minds about the Austen novels. We see that we are hastening towards felicity, to marital happiness. But life, we know, isn’t like that. It wasn’t like that for Jane Austen. She had suitors, but circumstances, even liking, perhaps, conspired against her. If she had accepted one of her suitors, would she have written these books that we have enjoyed so much?
Lizzie Bennett is the daughter of a country squire, living a comfortable life, but hanging over her, and her sisters, is a threat. Her father’s estate is to go, when he dies, to a relative, who can turn them out of their house, and Lizzie, and her mother and sisters will be left to an impoverished life. Lizzie and her sisters have only one hope: to marry well. But men who marry expect their brides to bring something with them. Fifty pounds a year, in 1814, would not be a temptation for many men.
But the Bennett girls do meet rich men. Jane, Lizzie’s older, beautiful sister meets Mr Bingley, who has five thousand a year, and he makes his admiration clear. Lizzie meets Mr Darcy, who has even more: ten thousand, and a magnificent estate in Derbyshire. Mr Darcy is, however, arrogant and distant. Another suitor appears for Lizzie: Mr Collins, the man who will inherit her father’s estate, but he is not the man for her, and she rejects him. The family is in turmoil. Their future depends on the girls making advantageous matches. But Lizzie will not relent. She knows what her happiness depends on.
The turmoil is resolved. Lizzie’s friend, Charlotte Lucas, takes Mr Collins away to dine with her family, and Mr Collins transfers his imaginary affections to Charlotte. The scene in which Charlotte explains this to Lizzie is one of the most moving scenes in the book, and is done full justice in the film.
‘I am not romantic,’ Charlotte says. ‘Mr Collins is a respectable man.’ Charlotte may be the daughter of a knight, raised from trade, but she has no fortune. Marriage to Mr Collins would give her a comfortable life. We know that Jane Austen understood this.
Lizzie is not convinced, but when she sees Charlotte’s home life on her visit, she acknowledges that it is done well, and Lucy Scott, as Charlotte Lucas, portrays to perfection a woman very different to Elizabeth Bennet, a woman who makes the most of what opportunity she has, There must have been many such women, daughters of impoverished gentlemen, in the early 1800s.
The scene in the film in which Mr Darcy proposes to Lizzie doesn’t put a foot wrong. It is just as it should be, following the novel in almost every detail. Darcy declares what he calls his love, but places more emphasis on his feelings of disgrace at his proposed union. The scene ends with Lizzie’s memorable words: ‘You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’
What a reproach to such a man! A more gentleman-like manner.
The film delivers this scene perfectly, and we learn later, either when we read the novel or watch the rest of the film, that it is these words that change this man’s life.
The film displays the rest of the story, and does it faithfully. Lizzie learns what Mr Darcy has done to arrange the marriage of her youngest sister Lydia, played by Julia Sawalha as a thoughtless pleasure seeker, who has eloped with the infamous Mr Wickham; the sexual nature of their union is made explicit in the film, and we have few doubts about this when we read the novel. A common problem, and a common solution, in the early 19th century when the restrictions of society were beginning to loosen. “Of course they must marry. But to such a man” Lizzie says. Lizzie’s growing understanding of Mr Darcy’s character and her realisation that he is just the man she could respect are portrayed well. It’s not easy, of course. Lizzie has been outspoken about her dislike, and her father, mother and sister Jane have difficulty coming to terms with Elizabeth’s new feelings.
Alison Steadman is a memorable Mrs Bennet, Benjamin Whitrow a perfect foil for his wife’s silliness, recognising the merits of his two older daughters, David Bamber excruciatingly embarrassing as Mr Collins. Anna Chancellor is magnificent as Mr Bingley’s sister, pursuing her hopeless designs on Mr Darcy.
There is a later film of Pride and Prejudice, made by Working Title, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, and Matthew McFadyen as Mr Darcy. From the start it announces itself as a more robust version of the novel, rumbustious at times. The Bennet family home is lower down the scale of gentleman’s residences, the washing is on lines around the house, the geese surround the house, and the pig is conducted through the house. The ball, in the first few minutes, is a much less genteel affair than the balls in the BBC film, and probably much close to the realities of small-town celebrations at that time. The cast is stellar. Brenda Blethyn is superb as Mrs Bennet, managing to combine silliness with a real affection and understandable ambition for her daughters, Rosamund Pike enchanting as Jane Bennet, and Claudie Blakely a wonderful portrayal of Charlotte Lucas, accepting with dignity Mr Collins, rejected by Elizabeth Bennet: “I’m 27 years old, and I’m already a burden on my parents”, she says, and we see her making the most of her lot in life. Lizzie Bennet cannot believe that he friend has done this, but Charlotte has secured a competence, and does her duty. Kelly Keilly, as Caroline Bingley, disparaging Lizzie at every turn, is superb. Tom Hollander is interesting as Mr Collins. He is not as objectionable as David Bamber in the BBC version; he has his good parts, foolish man though he is. The seduction, patched-up marriage of Lydia Bennet passes quickly, and Mr Bingley renews his affection for Jane Bennet.
Many viewers of this film have cavilled at the casting of Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennet. An American. His accent is not, to my ears, alien. He plays the part well. Lizzie’s explanation to her father of her regard for Mr Darcy is much better in this film than it is in the BBC film, and Donald Sutherland shows his emotional satisfaction. “I could not have parted with you <text>.
But the most successful scenes of this film are those at Lambton where Lizzie is obliged to reveal to Mr Darcy her sister’s fall from grace, and Mr Darcy is clearly moved by these revelations. We do not know at that point what he intends to do, but the tension is there. There is a later scene where, on a walk, Lizzie is able to thank him for what he has done for Lydia. Both Darcy and Lizzie are moved by what they feel for each other, but they do not touch each other. A less sensitive director would have them kiss, but they do not need to.
The photography of this Working Title film is superb. It really conveys the aura of the early 19th century, the country and the town.
There is an earlier (1980) BBC film with Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth Bennet and David Rintoul as Mr Darcy, directed by Cyril Coke with a screenplay by Fay Weldon. Irene Richards (Charlotte Lucas) opens the film with a fine exposition of the dilemma facing young gentlewomen without any fortune in the early 1800s – how shall they provide for themselves? By marriage, of course, if they can, and Charlotte Lucas is well aware that she cannot be too choosy: she is not particularly beautiful, although she knows herself to be competent and a manager, and will make a good wife for a man sensible enough to see beyond her appearance. Not that her choice, Mr Collins, after Lizzie Bennet has rejected him, is a sensible man.
This film follows the story more faithfully than either of the later films, and uses Jane Austen’s word more closely, for the most part. The film is actually billed as ‘by Jane Austen’. Fay Weldon, who wrote the screenplay, as done something very interesting. She lets the actors speak Jane Austen’s words, but their inner thoughts, delivered as musings are pure Fay Weldon, and illuminating. The actors deliver the Jane Austen’s words with different levels of success. Some of them simply say the words to move the story on. Others deliver the words in a way that illuminates both character and meaning. Barbara Shelley, as Mrs Gardiner, Lizzie’s aunt, is an intervener, almost from a later age. Her few words mark her out as a woman of understanding. This was Jane Austen’s intention, of course, but it took Barbara Shelley to bring the words to life in a way that not all of the actors achieve.
Lizzie Bennet muses about the impropriety of her father’s behaviour towards his wife. It is all there in the novel, but the words that Lizzie uses are Fay Weldon’s, and after Mr Darcy’s sudden proposal, Lizzie’s embarrassment if conveyed even better by Fay Weldon’s words than by Jane Austen’s words on the page of the novel. It isn’t always so. Elizabeth’s explanation to Mr Darcy of Lydia’s elopement, an emotionally moving scene, uses Jane Austen’s words, but arranged to great effect by Fay Weldon. It’s almost heresy, I know, to think that Jane Austen’s words can be improved.
Dance figures prominently in Jane Austen’s novels and are, of course, given a full place in all of these films. The metaphor of the dance, signifying matrimony, is never far from our thoughts. The dances partake of the character of each film. The dances in the 1995 (Ehle/Firth) film are, for the most part, elegant and civilised, those of the 2005 (Knightley/MacFadyen) film more robust, more country dance than elegant ball, while the dances of the 1980 (Garvie/Rintoul) film something in between, like the film itself.
There is an even earlier film, made in 1940, starring Laurence Olivier as Mr Darcy and Merle Oberon as Elizabeth Bennet. The best thing one can do with this film is to draw a veil over it, unless you are interested in the history of film
But what of the future? Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy marry. Readers have speculated for two hundred years what life must have been like for Elizabeth, married to Mr Darcy, and some writers have taken it upon themselves to spell it out, in parody, pastiche and erotica. Margaret Drabble was particularly sceptical about the chances of Lizzie’s happiness. Mr Darcy has his spots, and, like the leopard, is unlikely to be able to change them substantially. The one film that does give some hope of such a change is the 1980 (Garvie/Rintoul). In this film, there is a display of Mr Darcy’s changed character. From this version one has hopes for Lizzie’s life with Mr Darcy. But the weight of the evidence is against it.





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