Jane Austen, whose works are currently in glorious profusion either as features or as video fare, again displays her charm, humor, incisiveness and durability with this A&E/BBC version of her 1813 “Pride and Prejudice,” as popular a novel as she ever did. An engaging, three-night marathon shining with wit, beauty and romance, it’s a joy.
Austen’s character studies and inspection of Georgian manners provide dry humor, and her persuasive major figures are steeped in flirtations and matches. Elizabeth and Darcy, both of whom observe the proprieties, telegraph unspoken romanticism. After the initial snub by the boorish Darcy, Elizabeth who loathes him, keeps her own counsel. She does flash an occasional side glance at him, and he does at times appear, though aloof, shaken; without touching, their mutual attraction becomes increasingly sensual.
In program’s fourth hour, a chance outdoor encounter between Elizabeth and Darcy at his estate, after outraged Elizabeth turns down his arrogant marriage proposal, may be the sweetest moment in the whole wondrous adaptation. There’s another instance, in a salon in the fifth hour, when finally they exchange a long look; that’s all they do, but it’s romance to the hilt.
Susannah Harker does splendidly as eldest Bennet sister Jane, who pines for moneyed, charming Bingley (Crispin Bonham-Carter). The family’s shame and embarrassment remains the feather-brained, 15-year-old Lydia (Julia Sawalha), so anxious to catch a soldier that she does. All the sisters — there are also Polly Maberly as Kitty and Lucy Briers as dour Mary — pay little attention to their giddy, ambitious mother (Alison Steadman). Their patient father is played drolly by Benjamin Whitrow.
Two self-centered characters suggest Dickensian folks. Barbara Leigh-Hunt launches into the tyrannical, insolent role of Lady de Bourgh with a mean haughtiness. Mr. Bennet’s cousin and heir — the point around which the story is based — is an infuriating toady. As the cad Wickham, Adrian Lukis is sleek and convincing. Bingley’s grotesque, feather-bedecked sisters (Anna Chancellor, Lucy Robinson) point up the satirical underpinnings of the piece.
Filmed magnificently by John Kenway, edited adroitly by Peter Coulson, the work looks magnificent. Viewers will welcome the economy of the opening credits. Designer Gerry Scott does a bang-up job with the interiors, while exteriors are smashing. A major location was Lacock Village, in Wiltshire, owned by the National Trust and dressed for the occasion. The exterior of Darcy’s mansion is Lyme Park in Cheshire, and the Bennet home is Luckington Court, Wiltshire.
Dinah Collin and Kate Stewart’s eye-filling costume designs are, if not always slimming for the ladies, charmingly correct. A ball in the second hour, impressively choreographed by Jane Gibsson, sets an opulent tone for the venture. With a lovely, appropriate score by Carl Davis, the comedy of characters is a delight.
This production aired in Great Britain to enormous success, garnering the highest ratings of any BBC costume drama ever. Though A&E coyly declines to discuss actual costs, a spokesman let it out that this is the most expensive drama series it has been part of.
“Pride” is no stranger to TV. Fred Coe adapted and directed Madge Evans as Elizabeth on Philco TV Playhouse as far back as 1949, and, in 1957, Virna Lisi appeared in a live, serialized version on Italy’s RAI-TV. And, for the silver screen, Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in the 1940 Hunt Stromberg production.