It is a truth, universally acknowledged that the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice is the most wildly popular dramatization of Jane Austen’s work ever to grace the screen, large or small. No other work has inspired such fan devotion, being the source of countless websites, news articles, and even books. Until this time, we had movies that were based on the novel by Jane Austen. Now we have novels which are based on the Jane Austen movie! P&P2, a co-production of the BBC and A&E television, was shown in Britain in the fall of 1995 and in the USA in January, 1996.First imagined in 1986 when Producer Sue Birtwistle and screenwriter Andrew Davies met at a showing of Northanger Abbey, the film took nine years to create from start to finish and remains the measuring stick of all other Jane Austen films. At first, the project was put on hold because it was felt to be to soon after the last major television production of Pride and Prejudice (1980), but this team had some very specific ideas in mind for their film. Sue Birtwistle says, “People often ask, ‘Why make a new version on film…?’ Although videotape is the dominant medium for television and works for current affairs and documentaries, I don’t feel that it serves drama well. It always looks undernourished; it’s too present, too literal. Unpoetic, if you like. We wanted scenes to have a freedom that is just impossible to achieve recording on video in the studio.” For this reason, filming, which took over five months, was carried out in a variety of stately homes across England. As it was the most expensive miniseries to date (costing approximately £1,000,000 per episode), the company had ample resources to shoot “on-location” and achieve the authentic feel missing from previous studio versions. In all, twenty four locations were used, along with eight interior sets.
Another strong point in this version was the costuming. Not only does this help audiences understand and appreciate the character/time period, they help the actor “get into” his role. For most films, costume designers have a range of ready made clothes to choose from, however, Dinah Collin (who won an Emmy for her costume design in this film) found, to her dismay, that she was not to have that privilege with Pride and Prejudice. The costumes simply weren’t there! Nothing of this scale, set in the early 1800’s had ever been attempted before!
Most of the costumes seen in Pride and Prejudice were specifically made for the film. In fact, some of the fabrics used were specially dyed or printed for this production. Simon Langton, director of the movie, knew just what he was looking for, “I wanted pale colors or creamy whites for the girls, to reflect both their zest and innocence. This meant that we could keep the darker, richer colors and exotic fabrics for characters like the Bingley sisters or Lady Catherine De Bourgh.”
These costumes were a hit with both audiences and the cast. Jennifer Ehle, who won the 1996 Best Actress BAFTA award for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet, raved about the selection of dresses she was given, as well as the flexibility she had to choose what she wanted to wear. “There was one little dress that I used to wear a lot–just as today you would pull on a favorite pair of Levi’s or a well worn T-shirt”, she says, “You don’t often get the chance to have a choice like that, and I was very grateful. My daily mix and match became part of the pleasure of making the series.” Crispin Bonham-Carter (Mr. Bingley), who originally tried out for the part of Mr Wickham, notes that, “An actor’s dream is to put on a good period costume and some sideburns…you’ve got the character straight away!…When you are surrounded by such total realism in the sets and clothes, it would be very hard indeed not to have some of the naturalism rub off on you.”
Perhaps the most commented on and controversial scene in Pride and Prejudice would be when Mr. Darcy, played by Colin Firth, dives into the lake. This is an entirely invented scene, far different from what Jane Austen had in mind when she wrote her book. Careful notice, if taken, will reveal many such “extra Darcy” scenes in the film. Most of these are character development, allowing us more insight into the man, than we are allowed in the book. One reason writer Andrew Davies, chose to do do this is that, “In the novel Darcy is a mysterious, unpredictable character whom we only really begin to understand right at the end. I haven’t done a version about Mr. Darcy, but I suppose…I’ve perhaps pushed it a bit more to be a story about Elizabeth and Darcy, rather than a story about Elizabeth. I particularly wanted to show backstage scenes with Darcy and Bingley because in almost any version of Jane Austen, I’ve seen, everyone seems terrifically stiff and buttoned up the whole time; you get no sense that they are living, breathing, feeling people inside. So I thought, ‘What do they do in their spare time?’ and decided to show them going riding, and shooting and fencing. Darcy goes swimming at one point and it’s partly a way of showing him as a real human being.”
The other part of this reason can be found in Andrew Davies screen directions: Darcy, riding up to the lake, hot, sweaty and travel worn, decides to dive in, ‘taking a brief respite from duty, and from the tumult of his tormented and unhappy feelings’. The camera switches to show him swimming under water, ‘cleaving through this other element, a natural man, free from the trappings of culture’. Again the camera switches, Darcy and Elizabeth meet on Pemberley’s grounds and the plot picks back up right where Jane Austen left it. Simple enough. Why the big deal?
Though part of that scene was filmed at the lake in Lyme Park, the underwater scenes, were another story. Colin Firth*, explains, “There’s a thing called Wiles disease, which means you can’t be insured to jump into a pond, because you can get sick. So we got a stuntman to do the actual dive… Everything is me, except there’s a very, very brief shot of the stuntman in midair. Everything else is me. [The reason you can’t tell the difference] was because he had stuck on sideburns and a Mr Darcy outfit on top of a wet suit. He could only do it once for insurance reasons and then he had to be checked for abrasions for about six weeks afterwards.” The actual underwater scenes, shot at London’s Ealing Studios, had their own share of problems. During the first take, just after the dive, Firth slammed his nose on a steel girder in the tank. His nose was so bloody and swollen that the crew had to shut down filming for a day. Such is the price paid for inventing Austen.
Pride and Prejudice, directed by Simon Langton, seems to fulfill the old adage, “Third time’s the charm”.
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