If you're acquainted with Elizabeth Bennet, you may have trouble recognizing her in the five-part "Pride and Prejudice" that starts tomorrow night (9 p.m. on Channel 26).
Jane Austen's Elizabeth was beautiful, smart, brash and utterly free of affection. The "Masterpiece Theater" Elizabeth has the first four qualities in abundance, but is also unexpectedly vain and concerned about appearances. In novelist Fay Weldon's adaptation, Elizabeth entreats her sisters not to be seen talking to soldiers on the street -- and seems to mean it. And as acted by Elizabeth Garvie, she speaks and sings much more prettily and daintily than the heroine of the novel did. (When her mother tells Elizabeth, after a party, that she should never have sat down at the piano because "you have not the voice," we have to think Mrs. Bennet's musical standards very high indeed.)
This altered Elizabeth, plus a certain crudity in several of the characterizations (especially when comedy is sought for) and some appallingly graceless camerawork and editing, are the drawbacks to this BBC import. Otherwise, "Pride and Prejudice" is close to top-of-the-line "Masterpiece Theater," with the usual elegant period settings and an unusual number of vivid performances.
Many of the novel's most memorable characters are delightfully recognizable -- the sardonic Mr. Bennet (Moray Watson), reluctant father of five marriageable daughters; the fluttery Mrs. Bennet (Priscilla Morgan), who never quite understands her husband's sense of humor but has a vague idea when she is the target of it; all the Bennet daughters (save a cartoon version of Mary, played by an actress named Tessa Peake-Jones); the open-hearted Mr. Bingley; the loathsome Mr. Collins; and, of course, the haughty but misunderstood Darcy.
David Ritoul makes a particularly fine Darcy, muttering contemptuous asides almost without moving his lips, and he even resembles Laurence Olivier, who played the part in the movie.What's more, Rintoul and Garvie have real chemistry as the central lovers of this story.
Garvie may not be the Elizabeth of Jane Austen's imagination, but she plays the part with great charm; and besides, most of her dialogue has the good fortune to come straight from the novel. So we should probably forgive her and enjoy the show.