I have made no bones about it: I simply adore the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Mr. Darcy and Lizzy Bennet. Yes, I still quibble with some minor points. The wet shirt scene, for instance, which was dropped in out of nowhere and which, as we all know, our Jane did not write; but all in all this adaptation of Jane’s touchstone novel still shines. This screen version has been around for such a long time, that I won’t bother to review it. I’ll merely make some observations about Pride and Prejudice productions in general.
Younger Jane fans tell me they prefer P&P 2005. Many of them argue that Colin and Jennifer were simply too old to play Darcy and Lizzy, and that Keira and Matthew are exactly the right ages. My, how our perception of starring roles has changed over time. As the movie 'Shakespeare in Love' so admirable demonstrates, for centuries women weren’t even allowed to play female parts! Once they were allowed to, the truly successful stars appropriated the best roles for themselves, including those of the opposite sex. During the 18th century, Sara Siddons scandalized Society by playing Hamlet. Most recently Cate Blanchett portrayed Bob Dylan and we didn’t bat an eye.
It was also not uncommon for middle aged actresses to play the role of a teenaged Juliet. In fact, Franco Zefferelli shocked the industry by using the more age-appropriate Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the lead parts of his marvelous 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, thereby starting a trend. It was widely felt at the time that actors and actresses needed years of seasoning before they could tackle Shakespeare.
During the 1950’s, Mary Martin, who was born in 1913, played young Peter Pan on Broadway. The audiences at the time were so accustomed to seeing actresses play someone much younger than themselves that the play was a smash hit. In 1939, Greer Garson was a 35-year-old Hollywood studio mega star and Laurence Olivier was an up and coming 32-year-old romantic lead when they were contracted to play Lizzy and Mr. Darcy.
This 1940 version of P&P is now regarded a classic. Shown recently on Turner Classic Movies, I snorted and guffawed when I heard Carrie Fisher declare it to be the definitive cinematic version of Jane’s novel. Why, she asked rhetorically, were people bothering to make other adaptations when this paragon of filmdom had already been made? Why, indeed. Could it be that Jane’s plot for the 1940 version had been so altered; that the costumes were so wrong; and that the lead actress was more suited to playing a matron, that one alternately cringes or laughs when one watches this version? Food for thought, Carrie.
But I digress. P&P 2005 is also guilty of ageism, but in reverse. I love Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland, two fine actors who I would pay to see in any movie in which they appear. But let’s face it. At 70, Donald is more suited to playing Lizzie’s grandfather than her father. And Brenda, bless her heart, was close to 60 when she tackled the role of Mrs. Bennet. We all know that Mrs. Bennet was a silly young thing when she married Mr. Bennet. According to my calculations she is closer to forty and no more than fifty when Jane Austen’s tale begins. I recall reading one comment last week about Jemma Redgrave being too young to play Lady Bertram. Actually, at forty-three she is just about the right age for the part.
As you can see our perception of age is a relative thing. The young viewer will always think that all people over 29 should be lumped together in the geriatric department, and those of us of a certain age will show more forbearance towards 26-year-old actresses (Jennifer Ehle) who dare to tackle the role of a 20-year-old. In fact, Jennifer was so successful in her portrayal, she received a BAFTA in 1996. For my own taste, Jennifer HAS become Lizzy. Her looks more closely resemble the regency ladies in George Romney portraits than Keira’s, who is too strikingly beautiful and modern looking for the role. As a reminder of the first impression Lizzy makes on Mr. Darcy, here is his view of her in conversation with Mr. Bingley:
"You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.
"Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
When Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy echoed these words about the stunningly beautiful Keira Knightley, I laughed out loud. To be fair to Keira, her portrayal of Lizzy garnered an oscar nomination, and while I think her performance was fine, I thought the movie itself was much too short to fully develop the fine panoply of characters that Jane Austen created. Be that as it may, I will relish Sunday nights for the next three weeks, and will revel in seeing this version of Pride and Prejudice once again, thanking PBS Masterpiece Classic for bringing it back for a new audience to discover.
Click here to read this blog's posts about Mr. Darcy, including Mr. Firth and Mr. Macfadyen. - Ms. Place
Read more about Pride and Prejudice at Jane Austen's World and Austenprose.