The Not-At-All Definitive Guide to Jane Austen Films
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when your husband leaves town for 8 days, you should ferret out every Jane Austen movie adaptation possible and rank them according to style, casting, overall feel, and that special, indescribable little pop that makes a film worth returning to year after year.
And so I did.
I should begin with a disclaimer that these rankings are 100 percent subjective, 110 percent silly, and 125 percent based on nothing more than my own zany mood, which was left to its own devices for 8 days straight, so you know, be warned, fair visitors. I should also say that even with that disclaimer, I took this pretty seriously, in the best and most fun way possible. There was a fair share of note taking that accompanied my happy viewing, and just a wee bit of research into certain actors, writers, directors, and even Ms. Austen herself.
The movies I watched were mostly chosen for convenience, i.e. the adaptations that I could either readily check out from my local library, or that I already owned, or that I was able to find on one online streaming service or another. I’ve indicated below where I found each copy so that you too can enjoy the experience if you feel thusly compelled. (Be careful though, engaging in this activity may result in you using words such as “thusly” and publishing them on the internet.) As the week progressed, I found myself wanting to compare different imaginings of the same story, so you will find two “Pride and Prejudice” movies represented, and two “Emma” adaptations. (Please note, the movies below are listed in the order in which I watched them.)
OK! Pull up a couch, grab some coffee, wine, ice cream, popcorn or all of the above, and let’s get to it.
Pride and Prejudice (1995) — ★★★★★
This is the Jane Austen adaptation that launched me onto this quest when I discovered it was streaming on Hulu. Be prepared, this BBC-version was originally released in episodic form and clocks in at just under 5 ½ hours all told. But, my friends, do not let that scare you. This is the Jane Austen-inspired film by which all other such films ought to be measured. It is divine, all 327 minutes of it. I watched this version of P&P many times throughout my young life, and I daresay it is what hooked me on Jane Austen to begin with. It shows the historical injustices women of that time period faced, but also presents, in some opposition to those realities, the headstrong, not-easily intimated, forward-thinking heroine of Elizabeth Bennett. I daresay Miss Elizabeth was then and will always be a bit of a role model for me. She doesn’t back down from her ideals, but (in time) is capable and willing to graciously admit when she is wrong. She doesn’t wither under the scrutiny of proud men and women of higher social standings, and remains firm in who she is and what she wants, despite the many obstacles she faces as a woman of limited means in the early 19th century. Jennifer Ehle so beautifully portrays this strong character, and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy is a wonderful foil for her. The cast as a whole will delight you, and the dialogue, pacing and grandeur of the entire production stays quite true to its source material. Start here. And if nearly 6 hours is all you can take in Jane Austen-land, then you cannot go wrong by finishing here too. (Where I found it: Hulu.)
Northanger Abbey (2007) — ★★★
Come for the delightful opening narration that introduces you to our fine protagonist, Catherine Morland, and stay for the over-the-top cheesy, film noir-esque daydream sequences scattered throughout. Northanger Abbey is the story of Miss Catherine, a young lady whose imagination and resulting worldview is much too easily influenced by Gothic romance novels. Her naiveté leads her to many a mishap and run-ins with people of questionable character, but in the end, the fog of fantasy will be lifted from her eyes and every manner of thing will be well. If there are any Charlotte Brontë fans among us, enjoy the Jane Eyre-like mystery that accompanies you through the first half of the film. Felicity Jones plays a fine Catherine, but my favorite character is by far Henry Tilney. Gentleman, please take note that if you can speak with any sort of authority on the topic of muslin material, you will be in with all the ladies at the ball. JJ Feild brings just the right sort of lighthearted, mischievous gleam to the eyes of his Mr. Tilney portrayal, and bonus points, Mr. Feild was born in our very own Boulder, Colo. (Colorado natives represent!) This flick is much shorter in length and scope, and all-in-all, takes itself much less seriously than the ’95 Pride and Prejudice. But it is fun, rather goofy, and offers us viewers a healthy helping of cheese on the side. (Where I found it: My local library.)
Emma (2009) — ★★★★
Ready for another BBC saga? This adaptation of Austen’s Emma sets up the world of Emma Woodhouse so perfectly you will think you live in Highbury, England yourself. With nearly four hours and four episodes to work with, the film crew had time to build the scenes, dive into the characters and their motivations, and really set up the dynamic relationships between the many personalities Jane Austen created. I love Romola Garai as Emma. She captures the progression of happy matchmaker content to never herself marry, to uncertain matchmaker unsure if her well-intentioned meddling is really so innocuous. The loyal friendship-turned-relationship between Emma and Mr. George Knightley is lovely and nicely shown, but my favorite duo in this movie is Emma and her father, Mr. Woodhouse (here portrayed by the fantastic Michael Gambon, who yes, also starred as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies). Mr. Woodhouse, whose wife died when his two daughters were very young, is the best sort of compassionate and caring father, but, as a result of his wife’s untimely end, is nervous and over-anxious and certain everything in the world is out to get him or his loved ones. Even wedding cake. The way in which the filmmakers show Emma’s love and attentive watch over her chronically worried father is really beautiful, and adds to the depth of a character who can sometimes be depicted as gossip-loving busybody. Jane Austen was meant to be visited with at length, and I’m quite certain these more robust, multi-hour adaptations do us all a great service. Oh, and keep an eye out for one of the most vigorous dance scenes I have ever witnessed in a Jane Austen movie. Get ready for some hootin’ and hollerin’ the like of which would almost certainly make Mr. Darcy wash his hands of balls and dances forever. Watch this version of Emma and enjoy. (Where I found it: Hulu.)
Pride and Prejudice (2005) — ★★★
This made-for-the-silver-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice definitely brings more of an independent movie sort of vibe to the scene. Starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett, this film takes some artistic liberties with things like costumes/hair, as well as interpersonal relationships that would strictly not be found in Jane Austen’s time. A small for instance: Elizabeth arrives at Mr. Bingley’s estate to visit her sick sister, Jane, with her hair down and wild all about her in a very undignified way. This would simply not be tolerated in that time in history. For this and a few other ultimately inconsequential examples, I have heard the hardline Austen fans write off this version of P&P entirely. But despite the anachronisms, I find this movie to be rather beautiful. The cinematography, sets and landscapes presented to us are breathtaking. The Bennett home feels more lived in and real than the 1995 version, and the relationships between the sisters are much more accessible somehow. Also, the soundtrack. Download it on your favorite music streaming service and listen on repeat next time you want to escape the confines of your office. However, be forewarned, if you watch the ’95 P&P first, this 2005 version will feel truncated, and appear to move rather quickly, which can be startling. You may also find that certain characters (*ahem* Mr. Bingley *ahem*) come off as much too silly and, at times, even borderline idiotic. Still, there’s an intensity and emotional rawness to the interactions between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy which can’t help but thrill you, and, if you give it a chance, I think you’ll find this interpretation to be rather moving. (Where I found it: My local library.)
Sense and Sensibility (1995) — ★★★★★
It seems that 1995 was the year for Jane Austen movies, because this version of Sense and Sensibility is c’est magnifique. I discovered that Emma Thompson not only stars as eldest Dashwood sister, Elinor, but she also wrote the script. I mean, some people and their talent, right? I watched this movie as a young gal as well, and the strong women characters who are confined by the difficult realities of life as women in that time, but who ultimately are not defined by those hardships, really influenced me then and now. There are lessons to be learned from these characters. Edward Ferrars, played by Hugh Grant, is perhaps my favorite leading man in all these many Austen worlds (I know, a blasphemous admission to all you Colin Firth/Mr. Darcy fans out there). He is quite awkward, and says these silly asides to ease any discomfort/sadness/tension that crops up in various scenes. Something about that life approach speaks to my nature, let me tell you. The late Alan Rickman is a gentleman in every instance, making him another exceptional leading man. And finally, an honorable mention for Hugh Laurie, who is an absolute gem in his supporting role. Are you sensing a theme here? The cast of this movie couldn’t be better and I’m sure you will enjoy it all. Oh, and speaking of Alan Rickman, you will find not one, not two, but four actors in this flick who would later go on to star in various Harry Potter movies. A veritable Where’s Waldo situation if ever I found one. Much like the ’95 P&P, you cannot go wrong with this Austen adaptation, and I would encourage you to watch it posthaste. (Where I found it: On my shelf, but I’m sure your local library won’t let you down.)
Emma (1996) — ★★
To finish off my marathon week of Jane Austen-inspired movie watching, I watched one more Emma. And I have to tell you, this Gwyneth Paltrow-starring edition just didn’t do it for me. It’s possible my brain was just overloaded at this point, and so my assessment may not be entirely fair. But in this instance, my reception to the ’96 Emma was rather lukewarm and unresponsive. I didn’t love the cast, I felt the story wasn’t developed as well as in the 2009 miniseries version, and in all, I felt this adaptation lacked that essential, vivid pop which I found in myriad ways in the other movies. I may have to re-watch this version one day and see if my feelings change, but for now, I think you can take it or leave it. (Where I found it: My local library, of course.)
And for the grand finale, I present to you:
Jane Austen Movies You Can Skip
Becoming Jane (2007) —Though it purports to be based on Jane Austen’s life, this movie is largely not based in reality at all. The so-called facts presented in the movie have almost entirely not been confirmed by any experts, so take it all with a grain of salt.
Austenland (2013) — This movie does not stem from any one Jane Austen novel at all, but rather focuses on an Austen-obsessed gal who is so taken with the stories Austen built that she travels to a themed resort in Britain, and spends a week playing dress up with other Jane devotees and paid actors. Just say no, friends. Just say no.
So that’s it! That’s the expedition. The experience. The extravaganza. Watch any and all of these and report back with your impressions and critiques and thoughts. And if you made it through this entire epic write-up, I owe you many cookies.
SIGNED, anya elise