Nightlife

The Jane Austen Collection

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Aug 24, 2004
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The Jane Austen Collection on DVD -- If you like your Jane Austen hot and steamy… inasmuch as Jane Austen can get hot and steamy… then these six adaptations from the BBC, made between 1971 and 1987, should be just your cup of Darjeeling. If on the other hand you don’t drink tea, with or without biscuits and a ready arsenal of cutting English witticisms to hand, then you might be better off renting a Bruce Willis flick and calling it a night.

Austen had a way with parlor games of the social sort and with polished turns of phrase that could be slipped between the ribs and given a quick, sure twist. She also had a habit of repeating her plots and characters, to the point that with a glance at the TV screen you know at once who the bright bulb is (always young, female, unmarried, and romantically reluctant); who the naïve stripling sure to be hurt is (a younger female relative or friend with immature views on love and men, who is certain to cross paths with a cad and / or bounder); and who, among the various male suitors, is going to be called away to London on a mysterious errand, leaving scandalous (and usually erroneous) rumors of scandal in his wake. There is also, usually, a doddering father, though on occasion he is replaced by a devious patriarch or a largely impotent widowed mother. So deadening are the similarities that by the time I finished watching all six -- a project better suited to completing over the course of a full year than the two weeks I devoted to it -- I could scarcely tell -Mansfield Park- from -Pride and Prejudice- from -Sense and Sensibility-. All in all, however, there is no better crash course in the fine distinctions between the vulgar and the virtuous and the ways in which fine company functions to blur the two unless one is very careful and perfectly self-possessed.

As an example, take -Persuasion- (1971, directed by Howard Baker), a comedy of understated boldness in which Austen (and the screenwriter who adapted the novel, Julian Mitchell) both celebrates and upbraids society life in 19th century England. It is a time of waning fortunes for the leisure class, who -- like Sir Walter Elliot, the story’s somewhat confused patriarch -- begin to find it necessary to sell or rent their fine lands and manors in order to make ends meet. Sir Elliot is unwilling, but through the combined efforts of his manservant and his daughters, he is persuaded to rent his estate to wealthy Admiral Croft of the British Navy (Richard Vernon) -- newly enriched, as are many naval officers, in the wake of a war. Through the Admiral and various coincidences, Sir Elliot’s eldest daughter, Anne (played with a blend of grace and cosseted near-panic by Ann Firbank) is reunited with her former fiancée, Captain Wentworth (Bryan Marshall, who summons the peevishness of the jilted together with the carefully damped feral intensity of a man beside himself with longing). The long dance that ensues takes in country rambles, seaside retreats, and no small amount of gossip, but Austen’s rowdy -- for her times -- touches enliven stretches of dialogue that could otherwise become unbearably dull. (Was it my imagination or did Cap’n Wentworth, while explaining his rule about never allowing women on his ships, come out and qualify with, "Except for a bawd and a few hours’ visit"? Oh my!!) The outcome is never in doubt, but the lessons imparted along the way -- the need for a little starch on one’s character, the importance of keeping one’s shrubbery safe from strangers -- will ennoble and amuse: the story is that of the universal tag-team played by men and women, and while the telling may be quaint, it is restorative in these vulgar times.

The production is cheap -- videotape, muddy sound, two cameras running simultaneously on an admittedly clever set -- but the editing is creative and the sets (and actual interiors of houses) used are sumptuous, looking rich and gorgeous on this remastered edition.

In -Sense and Sensibility- (1981, directed by Rodney Bennett), Austen has a decidedly sharper approach in her views of high society. The tale concerns two sister, of whom Elinor (Irene Richard) represents Sense while her younger sister, the snobbish and romantic Marianne (Tracy Childs) embodies Sensibility of the stiffest and most snooty sort. It takes an encounter with the dreadfully inconstant Willoughby (Peter Woodward), from whom no young thing’s virtue is safe -- and then a heartbreak-induced near-fatal decline -- to cure Marianne, but of course once she comes to her senses there’s the eligible and smitten Colonel Brandon (Robert Swann) standing by in hope of her affections. There is a continuous anxiety and maneuvering among the characters that sets a quite unflattering backdrop for the drama’s action, all of it to do with money and the need to placate those who hold it, and disburse it, as they see fit.

The same sort of fiscal terror saturates -Pride and Prejudice- (1985, directed by Cyril Coke), which concerns the five unmarried daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett Moray Watson and Priscilla Morgan). And you thought you’d never see an Austen story where both parents lived to see their daughters married off! Of course, during the course of events, you rather begin to wonder of the Bennets indeed will survive their daughters’ silliness and bullheadedness, especially as concerns Lizzie (Elizabeth Garvie), the bright one, and her rather clueless sister Lydia (Natalie Ogle), an excitable waif named after the lurid musical mode of the Lydians in Ancient Greece, to judge by her wanton recklessness. Elizabeth takes on a clever and bad-tempered gentleman named Mr. Darcy (David Rintoul), who she berates for his ill humor and "implacable resentment." This, of course, arouses Darcy’s passion no end, and the Austen follies are on once again with a vengeance. Lydia, however, wastes precious little time in finding a suitor who whisks her off to Scotland (gasp! -- the shame!), where young women do -not- go to get married. All of this has a negligible effect on the imperturbably practical Mr. Bennett, who, when confronted by a letter from Lydia’s seducer demanding 100 pounds per annum to secure an agreement for the wild child’s honorable marriage, fairly explodes with contempt: "I can hardly believe it!" he cries. "What young man in his right senses would marry Lydia on so slight a temptation as 100 pounds per year?!" No matter how stained young Lydia’s reputation -- and, by extension, the reputations of her sisters -- this is at heart comedy of lace and frills, so true love wins out in the end.

The crowning jewel of the collection has to be the 1972 adaptation of Emma (directed by John Glenister). The teleplay is a frisky and colorful translation into the TV medium written by Denis Constanduros (who also wrote the outline for -Sense and Sensibility-’s TV version), the production values are a cut above the usual bleary-looking video, and the casting is perfect from Doran Goodwin’s fresh-faced beauty as the callow Emma to John Carson’s exasperated, steady Mr. Knightley, to Debbie Bowen’s worshipful, cornfed fish out of water Harriet, to Donald Eccles as the perpetually fretful Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father. You m ay be familiar with the story by way of the mid-90’s Alicia Silverstone flick -Clueless- -- society babe sets about playing match-maker, trying to manipulate various likely suitors into a marriage with Harriet, a "natural child of unknown parentage" (that is to say, a foundling born out of wedlock), whom Emma has adopted as her personal pet project. The suitors Emma chooses for Harriet have a remarkable tendency to fall for Emma instead, something that the clever young woman continually misses despite her vaunted ability to read people -- vaunted by Emma herself, that is -- and to see her talking, again and again, at cross-purposes with everyone she draws into her plot to plat yenta is hysterically funny beyond all expectation.

With the exceptions of -Sense and Sensibility-, which runs only two and a half hours (seven 25 minute episodes) and the remarkably compressed -Northanger Abby- (a story that mocks the gothic novels Austen derides elsewhere in her canon), which clocks in at a mere 90 minutes, these adaptations run to the long side… sometimes far too much so, veering into tedium. -Emma- stands alone in avoiding any boredom whatever, while the other works -- even the shorter ones -- have dull spots that just seem endless. Enjoy these solidly made adaptations by all means, but boil up a kettle of strong black tea beforehand. That way you can sip along with the catty, scheming characters and keep yourself awake as and when need be.

Contents: Persuasion; Emma; Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park; Northanger Abbey.

No special features.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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