1995's BBC 'Pride & Prejudice' Is Full of Forgotten Nuance
The worst people are better than we remember, the best are not as good as we thought.
'Pride and Prejudice' still courtesy of Lionsgate
Welcome to the first part of our Be Good and Rewatch It on the 1995 BBC production of Pride & Prejudice! We've already screwed up!
In what was supposed to be an episode covering the first half of the six-part series, Rob, Natalie, and Danielle spend two hours breaking down the first three-quarters of the first episode. Then Rob and Natalie reconvene to discuss the second episode. The third episode, our original stopping point, is completely forgotten! It will have to wait for next week. But don't get discouraged, there's a lot to dig into here. Who do we find ourselves strangely sympathetic to in this telling of Jane Austen's masterpiece? Mr. Bennett: avuncular dad or secret villain of the entire story? Is Lizzie actually that good a sister? How did we miss the red flags with Wickham? Is Matthew Macfadyen's awkward and conflicted Darcy in the 2005 film a more convincing portrayal than the intensely magnetic Darcy portrayed by Colin Firth? And finally, what are you supposed to do with Mr. Collins?
For the record, this was one of the first things I wanted to cover on Be Good and Rewatch It. Partly because the BBC Pride and Prejudice was the thing that got me into Jane Austen, and it remains one of my favorite series of all time, but also because it is so carefully and thoughtfully constructed that it is making arguments about the text in every scene.
You can be reductive with Pride and Prejudice. A classic romantic comedy, with two protagonists who take an instant dislike to each other, which delays and obscures their realization that they're perfect for one another. It all ends happily, they realize their feelings for each other, they end up married with the promise of a long happy future before them. The same story that's served as the plot for countless romantic comedies, and Pride and Prejudice in particular has spawned countless imitators across both romance and comedy, who take its broad outline as the skeleton for their own stories. A lot of these can be fun, sweet, and charming. They can also be toxic, misogynist, and downright disturbing.
What fascinates me about this version is that just about every characterization is in some way trying to speak to the issues Austen's original text raises. The central division between Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy is not one of misunderstanding. It is founded on deeply held principles of what a person should aspire to be, both as an individual with an interior life, and as an actor in society. The entire story is defined by money, who has it, who needs it, and how people are allowed to seek it. And all of that is before we get to the pointed themes of feminism and feminist resistance in the story.
I haven't watched this series in years. I thought I remembered it perfectly, but it turns out to be a much more dense, layered series than I ever gave it credit for being. We are encouraged to laugh along with Mr. Bennett at the absurdity of Mrs. Bennett and his youngest daughters, but still the series captures some of the casual cruelty of life in the Bennett household, and the real fears and motivations that animate Mrs. Bennett. Lizzie is still a romantic heroine, but we can also detect the ways she might be self-centered and taking for granted her sister Jane's good nature, even while admonishing her for it.
Pride and Prejudice is worth examining closely because there are countless possible readings of its subtext, little corners of characterization left to the imagination in the gulf between what characters say and how they actually behave in the story. There are countless essays and even entire series that try to fill in the gaps in the backstory and "offstage" events of Austen's novel. This 1995 BBC adaptation, in the details of its staging and small performance choices made for each character, offers up a similarly dense analysis of the story, and ultimately makes an argument about the work that's worth giving a close look.
- A good survey of the 1995 Austen revival on film and television
- A retrospective on the BBC's adaptation, with a focus on its stylistic choices
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