Knock me sideways! Did you know there is an active debate amongst Jane Austin fans about which version of Pride and Prejudice is better? I certainly didn’t, but apparently the contenders in the arena are the A&E six-part miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and the 2005 feature film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. I stumbled upon this exciting fact through an aesthetic lifestyle YouTuber I occasionally throw on named Darling Desi (who is absolutely adorable, by the way, and who you should totally check out if you’re of a romantic bent). Why is this exciting? you may ask. Well, I’ve seen both, I have a favourite, and I definitely have some thoughts to share! Here, my friends, is why I prefer the A&E version of the beloved novel all about Regency manners and social hierarchy.
(Before I begin, a quick word to say that this is all in good fun. I am by no means a film critic, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for everyone involved in both productions. The opinions stated below are mine alone, and not meant to offend anyone who may feel differently than this humble writer.)
When it comes to the feature film, despite what I may unintentionally suggest below, I don’t actually dislike it. In fact, there are several things they do well, and aspects I feel they do even better. For one, let’s talk about the aesthetic. My, is it glorious. From the music to the lighting to the grittier version of Regency country life, the film creates a beautifully romantic atmosphere. Like, they nailed it! And there is the romance itself. Where the love story between Lizzy and Darcy is a rosy-cheeked sigh in the A&E miniseries, the feature film is a bouncing-in-your-seat squeeeeee. I mean, the argument in the rain beneath the gazebo where it looks like the pair might actually succumb to an angry-hot kiss? Oh, yes!!!
For me, the three most significant reasons I prefer the miniseries to the film are as follows:
The portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet
At a birds-eye view, the literary and critical reception of Eliza Bennet is that she is the most admirable and endearing of Austen’s heroines, and is considered one of the most beloved characters in British literature because of her complexity. She is a charming young woman with an easy playfulness–which, incidentally, is one of her traits that attracts Mr. Darcy. Unfortunately, though Keira Knightley received an academy award nomination for her role, I don’t actually see much charm in her portrayal. Instead, I find that Knightley’s Eliza comes across as palpably combative, and not just with Mr. Darcy. She is this way with Lady Catherine De Bourgh, with Caroline Bingley, with her mother, and with her youngest sister, Lydia. Truthfully, it’s a combativeness that is, for me, off-putting. And though she delivers the witty lines, I find her delivery of them is often less than witty, and is instead on the edge of catty, insulting, or disgruntled.
Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzy, on the other hand, is delightful. Through this character, I feel the constraint of Regency manners on her wit. The at-times shame, and at-others tolerance, which she suffers at the frivolity of her mother and sisters is portrayed with an underlying thread of genuine familial love and affection. The relationship Lizzy shares with her father comes across as one of a long-developed mutual humour towards the other beloved family members, mostly told through knowing glances and stifled laughter. If the important principle of writing is “show, don’t tell,” then Ehle shows Lizzy’s wit and vitality, whereas the feature film merely tells it.
Cleverness of the writing and line delivery
I have some favourite lines in the miniseries. Lines which, had they been said present-day, I feel someone should be standing on the sidelines shouting “Mic drop!” My absolute favourite is in a conversation Eliza has with Mr. Darcy at Rosings Park when she is “entertaining” the gathering with her poor piano playing. Mr. Darcy says to her, “I have not that talent which some possess, of conversing easily with strangers.”
In the film version, Lizzie’s disappointing response, which was truncated from the original text and which is delivered with that ever-present edge of combativeness, is, “Maybe you should take your aunt’s advice and practice.” [Insert Veronica shaking her head at the missed opportunity here] Ehle’s Lizzy, on the other hand, looks at Mr. Darcy with overt politeness, and when she speaks, there is a faint undertone of someone patiently explaining to a five-year-old about why they need to wash their hands after using the potty. Her true-to-the-text response delivered with some admirable and thoughtful acting: “I do not play this instrument so well as I should wish to, but I have always supposed that to be my own fault, because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”
See? Mic drop!
Mr. Bennet provides another example of where the delivery is, in my opinion, more clever in the miniseries than the film. While I love Donald Sutherland and found he portrayed Mr. Bennet well, there was one line that I loved in the miniseries that I felt fell flat in the film. It is when Mrs. Bennet is insisting that Lizzy marry Mr. Collins or she will never speak to her again. The line is, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do NOT marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you DO.”
It’s such a funny moment. Such a witty line and perfect delivery by A&E actor Benjamin Withrow, who speaks so casually and almost with a wink at Lizzie as he does. Jennifer Ehle’s suppressed snicker is perfect as Mrs. Bennet is wailing away over the failure of her ultimatum. In the film version, however, the line is much more dramatic and heavy, and misses that lighthearted and mutually exasperated exchange between father and daughter.
Yet another example of the difference between the writing and delivery of the lines occurs during the ball at Lucas Lodge where Lizzy can’t think of a reason to turn down Mr. Darcy’s request for a dance. During the dance, they have a conversation that is polite but laced with dislike. While here there is again combativeness on Lizzy’s part, it is actually the rapidfire delivery of the lines that I’m not a fan of. Let’s be honest: NO ONE talks like that. It feels rushed and unnatural, and has an overall quality of outright hostility. In contrast, Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle make the conversation work as they navigate talking while dancing, and give time for the dance to move around their conversation. It served to increase our understanding of their mutual dislike in a more natural and enjoyable way.
Kitty and Lydia
This point of preference is significantly below the above two, but still plays a part for me. In the A&E miniseries, actresses Julia Sawalha and Polly Mayberry create a tale of sibling rivalry at its finest. Sawalha’s Lydia is a wonderful brat and deliciously spoiled, while at the same time still retaining that sense of innocence and lovable naivety which plays on Lizzy’s pseudo-motherly affection towards her baby sister. Through Sawalha’s Lydia, I can totally see that she would run impulsively away with Mr. Wickham. With Jenna Malone’s Lydia in the feature film, however, I find there to be a lack of development of the character through the portrayal. Malone’s Lydia, to me, comes across as wishy washy and thoroughly unlikable. Like, no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Other characters and circumstances
I think, overall, it’s the fact that all characters in the A&E miniseries come across as lovable, even when we hate them. I love how high and mighty, yet silly and pompous, Lady Catherine De Bourg is, whereas I am not a fan of Judy Dench’s menacing intensity in the film. When Anna Chancellor’s Caroline Bingley is put in her place by Mr. Darcy, oh I giggle every time (another mic drop moment here). But though Kelly Reilly’s got some massive acting chops (dear God, does she ever make a knockout Beth Dutton in Yellowstone!), her Caroline Bingley just doesn’t do it for me. She’s almost a non-character and might even not be there for all the difference she makes to the overall story. Emilia Fox’s Georgiana Darcy wears the scars and the subsequent maturity of her ordeal with Mr. Wickham, whereas Tamzin Merchant’s Georgiana Darcy seems just a little too innocent still. Caricature, rather than character. Even Mr. Wickham is charming in the miniseries, and I fully believe how Lizzy falls for his lies, whereas in the feature film there is something off about him and I question why Lizzy even likes him.
Overall, the writing for the miniseries, the character study, the line delivery–it all comes together in a wonderful and lighthearted A&E production that makes me fall in love with the world that Jane Austen built. And that’s a tremendous achievement. I suppose if I had never seen the miniseries and had watched the film first, I would have thought it was all right. But I suspect I would not have come to love the story the way I do. And for such a wonderful story that has clearly stood the test of time, that would be a personal shame.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to binge watch all six episodes of Colin Firth in starched collar and tight pants!