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The socially restricted lives of 18th-century women hardly seems like a subject that would inspire dozens of 20th (and 21st) century adaptations--but the brilliant novels of Jane Austen are flush with sparkling dialogue, razor-sharp wit, marvelously realized characters that range from adorably sympathetic to grotesquely comic, and--above all--ingeniously intricate plots, which arrive at a seemingly inevitable happy conclusion yet keep you seized with suspense every inch of the way. The Jane Austen Collection pulls together six BBC miniseries from 1971 through 1987, one for each of Austen's much-beloved books.
Unsurprisingly, the gems of the lot are also the best of the novels: "i"Pride and Prejudice and "i"Emma. "i"Pride and Prejudice, expertly translated to the screen by novelist Fay Weldon, skillfully chronicles the ups and downs of the sensible but quick to judge Elizabeth Bennet (the adorable Elizabeth Garvie) and the snooty Mr. Darcy (played with an imperious scowl by David Rintoul). Any adaptation of "i"Emma rests firmly on its central character, and Doran Godwin wonderfully captures Emma Woodhouse's resilience, determination, and exasperating self-satisfaction. Definitely the funniest of Austen's novels, Emma's satirical humor is perfectly balanced with romantic yearning, and this 1972 version succeeds delightfully.
"i"Persuasion, though more melancholy in tone, has a wonderfully sympathetic heroine in Anne Elliot (played by the graceful Ann Fairbanks), who once turned away the man she loved but is given the chance, seven years later, to set things right. "i"Sense and Sensibility suffers from comparison to the star firepower and cinematic sweep of the 1995 movie with Emma Thompson (a must-see for any Austen fan), but the dueling characters of gracious Elinore and headstrong Marianne, two sisters struggling with fallen fortunes, make for enjoyable viewing in this 1981 adaptation. "i"Mansfield Park has perhaps the dullest hero and heroine of any Austen novel, yet the story zips along, powered by some of Austen's most outrageous supporting characters, here brought to deliciously comic life by Anna Massey and Angela Pleasence. Northanger Abbey satirizes gothic romances and the overheated imaginations that loved them; but though the tone is more broad and melodramatic than most of Austen, this 1987 adaptation suits the novel and rounds out this very satisfying boxed set. --Bret Fetzer