The BBC’s hit adaptation of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel turns 20 this fall. Is it still worth watching now?
Pride and Prejudice, now streaming on Hulu
Based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, this six-part miniseries chronicles the unmarried Bennet sisters’ courtship adventures. When amiable, wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter) moves to town, he takes a liking to sweet, beautiful eldest sister Jane (Susannah Harker). His stuffy (and far wealthier) friend Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) snubs their new country neighbors and immediately makes an enemy of Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle), the second-oldest and brightest Bennet daughter. As Darcy secretly grows fond of Lizzie, she fields attention from other suitors. Unfortunately, the foolish behavior of her loudmouthed mother, snarky father, and three silly younger sisters may stand between both her and Jane’s marital opportunities.
Released in 1995, this series was an enormous hit for the BBC and earned Ehle a Best Actress BAFTA award. It also inspired Helen Fielding to write the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary.1
What’s to Love Now
The best Austen adaptations eschew stagey costume drama and instead capture the author’s signature airy, romantic, and lightly comedic tone. In that regard, interpretations don’t get much better than this. We can thank ace Austen adapter Andrew Davies for the very funny screenplay and director Simon Langton for every dynamic, beautifully shot scene. Don’t worry, there are still plenty of bucolic backdrops, curly tendril wigs and Empire waistlines to sate your period piece jones; I was delighted to see how beautiful this 20 year old production looked on a variety of HD devices (phone, tablet and TV).
But truly, it’s the acting that makes this a masterpiece. Ehle and Firth embody Elizabeth and Darcy. Her intelligence shines through those famous “fine eyes” and that smart-aleck grin perfectly suits the coolest of all Austen heroines. He is precisely what we want from our hero – tall, standoffish, brooding and incredibly handsome.2 Firth particularly shines in those moments when we know his feelings for Elizabeth before she has any awareness; his awkwardness become funnier with every successive viewing.
The supporting actors are just as dependable, particularly Alison Steadman’s shrewish Mrs. Bennet, Benjamin Whitrow’s alternately lovable and unnerving take on salty Mr. Bennet, David Bamber as sycophantic cousin/Bennet estate heir Mr. Collins3, and Julia Sawalha4 as flirty youngest sister Lydia.
What Makes Us Groan
Though that all important tone is generally spot-on, it does take a turn toward the melodramatic when things get serious. When the lovelorn characters begin seeing each other’s faces superimposed upon rural backdrops, it becomes downright laughable. But being an unabashed lover of soap operas, this didn’t deter my enjoyment one bit.
Although Ehle makes an exquisite Lizzie, there is something about her laugh that feels a little… fake. I don’t know how else to put it. Her laugh irritates me, and that matters when you’re dealing with a character who takes so much joy in mockery. It’s the only part of the viewing experience that made me roll my eyes in a bad way.
Another very minor issue with Ehle is that she’s almost too beautiful. How are we to believe Darcy must overcome his initial negative reaction to her looks and learn to love her for her sparkling wit, when she has the face of a porcelain doll? Alas, this is a common issue in many Austen interpretations; perhaps the assumption is that most viewers don’t want to root for a less-than-stunning heroine.5
The only significant problem I had in rewatching this were the Hulu ads. Having originally viewed the uncut version on DVD, I found them quite irksome – not just because ads are annoying, but because the original production was not built for those breaks. However, if this is the one and only way you can watch, that shouldn’t discourage you.
Binge away! Especially if you’re a Jane fan, you can’t go wrong. This is definitely the best version of Pride and Prejudice,6 and one of the finest Austen adaptations all around.
With just six episodes at less than an hour each, this is easy to knock out. It also makes very pleasant background viewing while you tend to your other household duties.7 But you’ll definitely want to sink into episode 3. Between Collins’s obsequious simpering and Darcy’s pathetic attempts at flirtation, it’s my favorite.
- The film adaptation of which starred Colin Firth as modern-day hero Mark Darcy ↵
- We especially appreciate the not one, but TWO gratuitous bathing scenes that Davies added to the story ↵
- Watch for the hand gesture he makes every time his employer Lady Catherine interrupts him – it’s like Mike Myers at his peak ↵
- Saffron from Absolutely Fabulous! ↵
- Which may explain why 1995’s fantastic feature film version of Persuasion is so underrated ↵
- Film or television – and generally speaking, the sprawling TV mini-series is a far superior format for novel adaptation ↵
- Ya’ know, when you’re writing letters, covering screens, tatting lace – lady things. ↵