FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Published anonymously as “A Lady” during her lifetime with only limited success, Jane Austen would, after prolonged illness, die at the age of 41 in 1817 with her legacy unsecured. Taking at least a century before becoming the ever-increasing darling of amorists and college and university English Lit classes, she and her self-possessing humor and social annotation would finally receive the kind of broad sweep popularity long-deserved thanks to the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries Pride and Prejudice. Often but inaccurately referred to as the originator of the “modern novel,” she was the emerging genre’s most dedicated early disciple, and indisputably its most giddy romantic fantasist: using then-contemporary settings, with character profiles based on her family, friends and less-than-favored associates, she concocted swooning chivalric reveries in which idyllic love trumped her own reality. (Now, of course, her novels are histories of manner, custom, propriety.) In spite of a lifetime relegated to living with her family, which included six brothers and one sister, and being educated at home and traveling relatively little, Austen the voracious reader dared to offer up her spinster energy to trenchant distaff observations of social behavior and to equally scorn its offenders. We can imagine the nettling the real personages felt in discovering themselves being brought to near-caricature by Mrs. Bennet, the Sisters Bingley, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (Austen’s devastating roman à clef sketches weren’t at the time considered libel, but her “immodesty” as sematic was and when objected to by her publisher, she responded by requesting that cover of anonymity.) Through her characters, Austen seldom hesitated to cast initial judgment on others—hence the original title of Pride and Prejudice, “First Impressions.” Understanding the universal human weaknesses to use one’s pride as armament and prejudice as rationale, she conjured embarrassing social ordeal as means to rectify the failings. Moralist she was, due in large part to her father being a rector (and her mother was a daughter of one) but, unlike Dickens, no badgering crusader: her novels don’t indict society, only the scoundrels and venomous gossips in it. 

Directed by Simon Langton, and adapted by Andrew Davies, this Pride and Prejudice most likely sparks so responsive a cord because there’s a powerful longing for Austen’s civility and beauty of language. As our own society dives into hatred, as we watch our culture sink into an “it sucks” cesspool abetted by a 140 character limitation, listening to the cultivated banter between Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie Bennet is an oasis of verbal rejuvenation. Darcy and Lizzie raging at each other, even while dancing at a ball, is the art of melodious accusatory discourse in the wars of attraction. They exalt in the way words can be designed to “politely” inflict wounds and self-righteous opinion, to reverberate with venom and passion and never more marvelously volcanic in an English-language entertainment than during Darcy’s proposal of marriage. The vexing too is highly polished: Lady de Bourgh claws at Lizzie with the demand that she “universally contradict” the “report of an alarming nature” that she’s about to be engaged to her nephew Mr. Darcy. Accusing Lizzie of using her “arts and allurements” to snare him, and if her “final resolve” is not to refuse any proposal from him, because her social status is less than desirable, then stern-faced Lady de Bourgh would be “most seriously displeased.” Even juicy chin-wagging is rendered comic: when Mrs. Bennet is informed of a future son-in-law’s “drunken rots, debauches, intrigues, seductions” the indictments are enunciated to enhance every damning syllable. 

Who’d have guessed Colin Firth an iconic Darcy? Looking taller than usual, employing an aristocratic gait (the Napoleonic coats and chimney hats help), having gained some fleshiness in the face, which is covered with advantageous collars and hair, he brings a bit of Laurence Olivier’s Darcy to the brooding snob-loner as tribute but he’s no clone: this is Firth’s début as masculine romantic and he’s absolutely first rate. John Kenway’s camera also aids enormously by emblemizing Darcy’s “first impressions” when he’s virtually stalking parlors and dance floors and when he’s frustrated by the challenge of the object of his affection. A puffy Barbara Parkins crossed with Mary McDonnell and a smidgen of Meryl Streep, Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie, the second oldest of five Bennet daughters, has a curiously courteous objurgation that both attracts and repels: the attention she gets for her various sentiments, notions and social position (which is always in danger of ebbing) are also the sins used against her by the upper class bitches—Lady de Bourgh, Bingley’s sisters (they sneer acid putdowns in hilarious Eleanor Bron get ups ). This Lizzie, however, has the kind of searing smarts that keeps enemies at bay and she has wonderful moments of self-recognition about her family, acquaintances, and her early faulty views, and the audience shares in the most revealing—taking in Darcy’s mansion, we can “see” her envisioning herself as the Mistress of Pemberley. Suggesting what Alistair Cooke might have been like as an actor, Benjamin Whitrow very warmly plays the Bennet patriarch who’s never above calling three of his five “the silliest of girls”; Alison Steadman’s gauche Mrs. Bennet is the epitome of excessive exasperation, lace and hypochondria; the youngest silly Lydia, who almost causes a fatal social calamity, gets the Tracey Ullman treatment by Julia Sawalha (Edina’s daughter on Absolutely Fabulous); Lucy Scott disarming as the decidedly unromantic, common-sensed Charlotte Lucas; and Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s Lady Catherine as another hybrid: Lillian Gish as Pamela Brown. As the effete pompous ass-kissing Mr. Collins, David Bamber provides what may be TV’s most amusingly churlish use of the language of condescension.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.