I have now seen four film versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Last night I had the extreme pleasure of viewing for the first time the earliest and best of the four: the 117-minute, 1940 release starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. The 1940 version shows Hollywood at its finest. Great actors delivering great lines with panache and wit in a lavish, tightly orchestrated, and fast-paced production that demands — and deserves — your full attention.
Garson and Olivier, in particular (but not exclusively), outshine their counterparts in the other productions that I have seen. Garson may have been “too old” (36 at the time the film was released) but who cares? She is now my image of Elizabeth Bennet: witty, cunning, cutting, forthright — and beautiful as well. Olivier (33 at the time of release) simply exudes Darcy: stubborn, prideful, haughty — and yet vulnerable and kind behind the facade.
The other three versions that I have seen all are commendable for various reasons. They are:
1995 (300-minute mini-series), starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth — excellent performances delivered at a more thoughtful pace than that afforded by a feature film, and in realistic settings (as opposed to the gaudy faux-rusticism of the 1940 version)
1980 (265-minute mini-series), starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul — somewhat stiff performances in a production clearly (and successfully) aimed at recreating the time and place of which Austen wrote
2005 (127-minute feature film), starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen — a mixed bag of performances (e.g., Knightley is good, if too juvenile; Macfadyen is a nothing) in a feature film that achieves more “realism” than the 1940 version.