Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (1979) (TV review)

     Pride and Prejudice (1979) BBC TV. [D: Cyril Coke. Elizabeth Garvie, David Rintoul. Script by Fay Weldon] The date of this series is not clear. The VHS copy released by CBS is dated 1987; the wrapper gives 1985 as the BBC date; but the end credits give 1979. So that’s the one I go with.
     I bought this copy at a yard sale for a dollar, and as such it was an excellent investment. At almost four hours, that’s 25 cents an hour. As for its quality, I recall seeing it on TV (PBS? TVO?) way back when, and thinking that it was much better than the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier film, which took, um, liberties with the plot. It also dithered between farce (Mrs Bennet, Katy, Lydia, Mr Collins) and comedy (Lizzie, Mr Darcy).
     This TV series has a consistent tone of semi-comic romance, the effect of Fay Weldon’s script. Weldon also takes some liberties, but all are based on clues in the text, so they work. For example, Charlotte and Lizzie share a laugh over Mr Collins. Unlike the 1995 series with Ehle and Firth, it sticks close to the book, and the general effect is, oddly, that of a filmed stage play. Again, I think it’s the effect of Weldon’s script, which relies more on words than on images to show the shifting moods and self-doubts of the main characters.
      There’s also a curious lack of dramatic tension, especially in the pivotal scene of Darcy’s first, insulting proposal of marriage. I think the text makes it clear that Darcy is crazy with love; hence his inability to frame his proposal in any but self-regarding words. The poor sod can’t believe that he’s besotted with Miss Elizabeth Bennett, a lady with low connections and an appalling mother. His proposal is both a genuine offer, and a self-reproach that he can’t control himself. Guaranteed to arouse Lizzie’s anger, in other words, which it does.
     Lizzie has already noticed Darcy’s “regard” during the visits to Rosings, and has begun to experience doubts about her feelings towards him. In addition, her contempt for Collins’ fawning on Lady de Burgh has roused her contrary mischievousness; she might have accepted Darcy’s courtship as much to annoy Collins and assert independence as for an opportunity to discover her true feelings about Darcy. But his proposal (temporarily) hardens her heart. If he had offered courtship before marriage, she might have accepted his advances, but then the story would have veered off in a quite different direction. Weldon cuts both Darcy’s and Lizzie’s speeches, and so removes the opportunity for showing the violently mixed emotions. So this scene doesn’t work as it should, it doesn’t show us that both protagonists must change in some fundamental way before they can marry, which is of course their destiny.
     I think that the theme of Pride and Prejudice is marriage: the proper grounds for it, the proper relationship between husband and wife, the possibilities of happiness or various degrees of misery. The obvious contrast is between Charlotte and Lizzie. Charlotte settles for a fool whom she will manipulate, but who has an assured income sufficient for her to live comfortably and enjoy her children and the respectable status in the parish. She will make an independent life for herself within the constraints of her marriage and her place in society. For her, marriage is a means to financial security and hence, paradoxically, the only personal independence she can have. The alternative would be spinsterhood, which was for her time and class a sad fate.
     Lizzie wants a man who is her equal. She’s her father’s favourite because she has independence of mind and spirit; she wants a man who like her father respects these qualities. She won’t settle for anything less; spinsterhood would be preferable to marriage such as Charlotte’s. Her irritation with Darcy arises as much from his initial blindness to her qualities as from his disrespect for her family.
     But there are several other examples of good and bad marriages. Austen does no more than hint at the cause of the Bennett’s failed relationship; she’s caustic about the odds of Lydia and Wickham’s odds of happiness; she indicates than Jane and Bingley are perfectly suited; she shows an example of a good marriage in the Gardiners; and of course Lizzie and Darcy will have an ideal marriage. Romances are fairy tales, after all. The video follows Austen, but doesn’t expand on the hints nor follow the clues.
     Overall, this adaptation works, and Austen fans will forgive its shortcomings. But the later version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth works much better. The similarities between the two versions are the characters; there is little difference between Rintoul’s and Firth’s Darcys, and Garvie’s and Ehle’s Lizzies. The main difference lies in the visuals. For example, several times we see Darcy and Lizzie from a vast distance, tiny figures walking through the huge parks surrounding the houses. Why? The interior scenes often look like stage sets, even when filmed in real rooms. Odd.
     Bottom line: I enjoyed this video, but I fear it is of historical interest only. Austen fans should see it, but for most people I recommend the 1995 production. Disclosaure: I think Pride and Prejudice is the essential love romance, the book that defined the genre. **½

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