The Essential Pride and Prejudice (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Being one of the most read and beloved books in the English language, it's no surprise that there have been a few efforts to bring Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to the screen.  There's an entertaining early attempt in 1940, a particularly faithful BBC miniseries in 1982 that I really own and need to revisit one day soon, and of course that Keira Knightley movie, which was an okay abridgement, though I felt they kind of dropped the ball with Mr. Darcy.  But really, there's little reason to keep taking additional shots at it, because the great Andrew Davies got it as right as anyone could ever expect to in 1995.  It's both my personally held opinion and a fairly wide consensus that this is the definitive Pride and Prejudice, and now it's got a pretty definitive blu-ray presentation to suit it.
This was a pretty massive effort for the BBC at the time; moving their traditional first class literary adaptations out of the sound-stages and mounting a full, Hollywood-level production on locations, and shooting on film rather than video.  Lavish estates, large horse-drawn carriages, and a smart, memorable score lay the stage for their largest undertaking yet.  Like the 1982 series, this adaptation was also made for British television in six hour-long episodes, which is pretty essential for telling the story.  Most full-length novels are too long for single films, but this Austen classic is particularly filled with plot turns and new characters, all of which need time to develop and flourish to truly work their effect. And here, it all pays off.  Colin Firth was already an established, notable actor in 1995, probably best known for playing the titular role in Valmont, but it's his turn here as Mr. Darcy that really set him for life.  He and the literary character will forever be associated, like Christopher Reeves is to Superman.  Jennifer Ehle also seems born to play her leading role of Elizabeth Bennet, and the supporting cast is full of terrific English character actors like Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Alison Steadman, Susannah Harker from House of Cards, Crispin Bonham-Carter (yes, they're cousins), the familiar face of Benjamin Whitrow and Absolutely Fabulous's Julia Sawalha.
I don't say the series is quite flawless.  Some of the comedy, particularly by Alison Steadman, is played pretty big, and in the first episode particularly, probably too far over the top.  I suspect they wanted to assure viewers that this would not be some dry, historical school lesson, but an entertainment modern audiences could relate to... but they might've gone a little too far.  Still, by the time you hit episode four, you're smiling every time Steadman enters the frame.  And yes, this version does take a few liberties with the novel.  But almost any criticism you might have at the outset is washed away by how appealing the production is, and how smart the combined writing of Austen and Davies.  Like Firth, Davies was already a success in his field, but this is the one that made him a Masterpiece Theater rock star.
And as the most universally beloved Austen adaptation, this has been released on home video dozens and dozens of times.  Even just in the US, it's been issued and reissued on DVD many times, starting with Image's 1998 release.  That was a fullscreen "chop off the sides, not open matte" affair, which looked like a VHS tape had been crudely digitized.  Then in 2001 came the 2001 Special Edition from A&E, which proclaimed itself the "First Ever Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1) Presentation in the U.S."  We'll see in a moment how they didn't quite get that right, but it was still a big improvement over the awful Image disc.  The same Special Edition version was packaged inside a large A&E Literary Classics: The Romance Collection boxed set in 2002, but was more notably released with a book on the making of the series and a third disc of extras in 2006 as the 10th Anniversary Collector's Set.  Then, in 2010, there was a new restored edition, on both DVD and blu-ray.  And most recently, A&E and Lions Gate have come out with a second blu-ray version, The Keepsake Edition, with all new special features!

Now, for all of those releases, certainly each disc will have its slightly individual encodes, but there are essentially four transfers that pop up on any of these discs.  The Image fullscreen version, which I got rid of long ago, so you'll just have to trust my embittered memory of poor that was, the Special Edition version that brought the film to widescreen, the DVD remaster and the HD blu-ray (both blus are essentially the same, in terms of picture quality). Specifically, the discs I have on-hand that we'll be comparing are the 2001 Special Edition, the 2010 restored DVD and the 2014 Keepsake Edition:
top: 2001 DVD, mid: 2010 DVD, bottom: 2014 blu.
So where to begin?  Well, okay, the "First Ever Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1) Presentation in the U.S." is not actually in 2.35:1, and neither is any other release.  I highly doubt the film was ever intended to be framed that way.  Instead, it and all the subsequent releases are in 1.78:1, which looks quite correct, although the blu does lose a pinch of information along the top and right-hand edges.  The Special Edition is indeed anamorphic, but has a terrible interlacing problem.  Even when compared to other interlaced discs, it looks bad.  It's like they took an interlaced transfer, and interlaced it again (in fact, I seriously suspect that could be what happened, with them brutishly importing PAL transfers to the US).  It's also undergone boosted contrast, clarification and other destructive tweaking.
left: 2001 DVD, mid: 2010 DVD, right: 2014 blu.
The 2010 DVD thankfully does away with most of that.  It's still interlaced, but not as badly, and it doesn't have most of the extra tweaks.  Consequently, it does look a little soft, but its colors, detail and motion (particularly the horizontal panning) looks much more fluid.  It's like they've gone back a generation or two, and it's all the better for it.  Still, it's downright bizarre that this came out in conjunction with the first blu-ray edition, as the blu-rays feature a much more attractive restoration taken from the original negatives.  For all its improvements, it's still taken clearly from a black crushing print.  That, or they "tweaked" it in an unfortunate, destructive way.  But the blu?  Wow.  The series was shot on 16mm, so expect a high grain-to-detail ratio, but it's such a vast leap forward in quality and naturalism.  Really, if you only own this one on DVD, this is a title you'll really want to upgrade.

The blu-rays feature a solid uncompressed LPCM audio track.  English subtitles are also included, which are a welcome site, as all the older DVDs lacked them.
Now, the story with the extras is as complicated and confusing as anything else with this series' DVD history, so let's just take it chronologically.  The Image DVD was barebones; that's simple enough.  And the 2001 Special Edition earned it's title with the inclusion of one, pretty great, 23 minute featurette simply titled The Making Of...  It also included a nice 8-page booklet with quotes from the cast and crew and an attractive slipbox.  The 10th Anniversary, then, added a pretty great, new hour-long retrospective feature as its main attraction, called Lasting Impressions, where most of the cast and crew (bar Firth and Ehle) reminisce on the filming and success of the series.  They also include the episode of A&E's Biography about Jane Austen, which has also been released on DVD on its own, plus a short "walk about" featurette with actors Lucy Briers and Adrian Lucas.  They're affable enough, but the walk's a bit of a wash, as they revisit one of the film's locations but have nothing of substance to say to one another.

Now, in 2010, the restored DVD and the initial blu-ray feature the same extras.  Specifically, they have the Lasting Impressions, the walk about, and two new features.  One is an excellent half-hour featurette that interviews much of the cast and crew but manages not to be terribly redundant in conjunction with the other extras (across all extras for this film, only a handful anecdotes get repeated), called Pride and Prejudice: A Turning Point for Period Drama.  And there's also a brief but informative (thankfully, he doesn't talk down to us) about the restoration process, which any reader of this site should appreciate.
2001's The Making Of...
The new Keepsake Edition, then, features all of the extras from the 2010 releases: Lasting Impressions, Turning Point, the walk about and the restoration featurette.  Plus, it has four new featurettes, which are all quite good.  The main one is The Definitive Pride and Prejudice, an overall history of the miniseries, starting with Austen and the novel itself, and interviewing many of the key players.  The following three, then, are essentially further interviews from the same time, on more specific subjects (though a few interviewees only show up in these later featurettes: Love or Money? Courtship and Marriage In Pride and Prejudice, The Music Of Pride and Prejudice and Lifestyles of the Wealthy in Early 19th Century England.  Those are all about ten minutes each and more focused on the show then some of the historical titles suggest.

I believe the idea of this Keepsake is to be a definitive edition, hence rounding up all previous extras as well as including new ones, but unfortunately they missed the original making of from the 2001 Special Edition.  And that one was quite interesting as it was filmed around the time of production, so not only are the interviewees noticeably younger, but they have a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews all of the other extras lack.  I suspect they left it off because it's fullscreen and they only had an interlaced, standard def copy that would look pretty poor on their otherwise beautiful blu-ray, but it's still a disappointment.  Also, rather stupidly, they only list four of the 8 special features on the back of the box, making it seem like they've just repackaged the previous blu, rather than coming up with some good, new content. It also includes several bonus trailers, which annoying all play on start-up, and comes in a nice slipcover.
So, there's not much debate over which is the release to get; the Keepsake Edition has the terrific HD negative restoration and the most and best special features by far, with no detriment to recommend a previous release, except the disappointing absence of the original Making Of...  The Keepsake Edition should be more than enough to satisfy casual fans, though, as that's already a couple solid hours of extras.  And happily, more dedicated fans can pick up the old Special Edition super cheap (as in under $2) online, so you can easily make compile a more complete special edition for yourself anyway.

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