The 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice was born out of director Sue Birtwistle’s vision for a modern day version: she wanted her film to be a faithful adaptation that’s “a fresh, lively story about real people. And make it clear that, though it’s about many things, it’s principally about sex and it’s about money: those are the driving motives of the plot.”
What’s this version like?
P&P 1995 is the first adaptation done on film (as opposed to videotape), which lends it a light and free and real feel. It lacks the stiffness of earlier British studio drama.
Jane Austen’s novel is a book about Elizabeth, but P&P 1995 is very much about Elizabeth and Darcy. The writer, Andrew Davies, decided that since Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth is “the central motor that drives the story forward,” he’d bring Darcy to the foreground. We see much more of him–especially early on–and are given a much fuller picture of his character from the beginning than we are in the novel, or in any other adaptation.
The visual storytelling in this version is beautiful and highly effective: the houses, horses, costumes and landscapes tell us in a glance about the characters’ wealth and social status–important elements in any Jane Austen work.
Who is Elizabeth in 1995?
Writer Andrew Davies loved the Elizabeth in Jane Austen’s novel: “Like everybody else, I’m in love with Elizabeth. I find her kind of joyful energy and sassiness just so beguiling….She’s fiercely moral, she’s got a terrific sense of humour, she makes fun of people, she doesn’t take herself seriously, but she doesn’t put herself down, either. She needs to marry money but she’s determined to marry the man she loves. She’s a great character.”
Davies’ goal was to transfer Jane Austen’s Elizabeth to the screen as accurately as possible. Jennifer Ehle is a bit too old to be Elizabeth (Austen’s Lizzie was 20; Ehle was 26 in 1995), but Ehle nevertheless fills the role well. She said of filming: “I thought I was the luckiest person in the world to spend an entire summer being Elizabeth Bennet.” This joy and passion shines through her character.
Who is Darcy in 1995?
Darcy is a much more prominent character in 1995 than in any other adaptation–or even in Jane Austen’s novel.
Darcy is played by Colin Firth, who hadn’t read a page of Jane Austen when he was offered the role–which he turned down! He feared the role was impossible for him to play, and that he couldn’t do it justice. But he loved the script, and Sue Birtwistle was convinced (and was able to convince him) that he was right for the role, so he agreed.
Firth’s Darcy is rich, aloof, arrogant, stiff, taciturn and shy–everything we might imagine from Jane Austen’s description of the man. But the 1995 Darcy has been humanized–the viewers get more of a peek into Darcy’s inner life and thoughts from the outset, thanks largely to the added backstage scenes. The audience sees sides of Darcy early on that Elizabeth doesn’t get to see till later, so the viewer is able to form a more accurate portrait of him than Elizabeth does–and root for him as he tries to win her over.
The slim book The Making of Pride and Prejudice that comes with the collector’s edition contains a whole chapter entitled “A Conversation with Colin Firth.” Austen fans will love Firth’s descriptions of the ways he broke down Darcy’s character and came to understand it. Take this example, in which he describes how he got in Darcy’s head for the first proposal scene:
And so Darcy is coming in with a very imprudent proposal, as he sees it. He’s saying to her, “I’m going to put to you a proposal that may make me seem rash, irresponsible and even, possible, juvenile, but I don’t want you to believe I’m those things. I have thought through every detail of this; I know that my family will be angry, that people will frown on us and that our social positions are very different. So don’t think that I haven’t dealt with these issues–don’t imagine that I’m just some reckless schoolboy. Nevertheless, having thought it all through, I find that my love for you is so overwhelming that these objections are rendered insignificant.”
And from that point of view, it’s a terribly romantic proposal. I was a bit hurt when we filmed it, and everybody thought I was saying something terrible: I had got myself so far into the notion that he had come in with a really charming thing to say.
Unlike other Darcys of other adaptations, Firth’s Darcy changes. In the novel, Darcy’s primary failing is “foolish, superficial, social snobbery, and that’s the bitter lesson he has to learn.” In this version–he learns it.
What’s to Love in the 1995 Version
If you want to see just one version of Pride and Prejudice on DVD, P&P 1995 is the one to see.
The casting is terrific. Elizabeth and Darcy have great chemistry (in fact, they had a relationship going during the filming). The supporting characters are excellent, and even the minor characters–who had to fight hard for their roles–are good.
This film was put together by people who absolutely love the book, and their passion comes through. The sense of timing and pacing are terrific. And though 5 hours is a long time to spend watching a movie, the long running time allows the producers to do the story justice. It’s a great story, and it’s well worth watching.
What’s Not as Lovable in the 1995 Version
The 6-hour running time allows plenty of time for character development, but it’s too long to sit down and watch it in an evening.
Favorite Original Scene:
My favorite scenes are straight from the book. I love the way P&P 1995 brings them to life. But for cultural relevancy and sheer staying power, I have to say–of course–the lake scene.
In the fourth episode, Darcy travels a long way on horseback to Pemberley. After his long ride he dives into the lake, then emerges to accidentally encounter Elizabeth, who’s arrived at Pemberley as a tourist. The stage directions describe Darcy’s swim as “a brief respite from duty, and free of the tumult of his tormented and unhappy feelings. He goes underwater–a natural man, not just a rich, buttoned-up snob.”
But the lake scene quickly took on a life of its own. The Guardian called it “one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history.” It’s alluded to in many later works that involve either Firth, or Jane Austen. And it’s so famous it gets its own section on Wikipedia.
- This adaptation was first conceived in 1986, but it was deemed to be “too soon” after the 1980 production, and shelved.
- Anna Chancellor, who plays Caroline Bingley, is Jane Austen’s niece by eight generations.
- This version inspired Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels and subsequent movies.
The Final Word
If you only want to watch one version of Pride and Prejudice on film, make it the 1995 edition.
(I highly recommend the 10th Anniversary Collector’s Set that comes with the book The Making of Pride and Prejudice. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this companion book–although I’m disappointed that there’s a whole chapter called “A Conversation with Colin Firth” and nothing for Jennifer Ehle!)
(Right now on amazon the collector’s set is $66 but the the dvds by themselves are only $14.99! Or you can buy The Making of Pride and Prejudice book separately for $16 new or as low as $3.99 used–with free shipping. Fans will find it well worth the $4 price tag.)