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The Independent Culture
Mills and Boon written by a genius, was how PD James summed up Jane Austen's work in Omnibus (BBC1) last night. It was a bracing judgement and one which the current adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (Sun BBC1) seems to be doing all it can to second, though the question that arises with increasing frequency as things hot up is "What happened to the genius?" I should confess now that I would probably watch this adaptation if it had been updated to a Stockwell council estate and Mr Darcy was played by a Somali refugee. After all, the plot is driven by the great V6 engine of romantic fiction - deferred consummation. Even if details are not finely tuned, that will still reliably deliver the wrenching torque of unspoken feeling and the thrilling tremble of potential loss.

But, having mastered an initial tantrum of betrayed expectations (the sort of paddy in which you stamp your feet and whinge "But that's not like Lizzie at all!"), I can't say that things are getting any easier. Jennifer Ehle's Lizzie is definitely improving, now that her tight, knowing smile is less in evidence, and even Colin Firth has been permitted the odd softening of his features (possibly to prevent cramp setting in), but there's still a sense that the interplay of feeling has been coarsened. The blame, I think, rests more on the direction than on Andrew Davies's script. True, Mr Darcy's entry in the Pemberley wet T-shirt contest was a bit over the top (though it transformed sitting on the sofa into an aerobic activity for several women of my acquaintance). True, it has looked at times as if he is in training for a pentathlon, as he gallops, plunges and lunges around the countryside, sublimating his urges in gentlemanly activity. But it would be silly to complain about the fact that more is visible on screen than on the page.

What's less forgivable is that the emotions are no longer as fugitive or troubling as they are in the novel, pinned down by long, unblinking shots until they expire under the heat of the lights. The delicate, fluttering scene in which Lizzie and Mr Darcy exchange looks over the piano after she has saved his sister from embarrassment becomes an unabashed gawp of mutual devotion. If Mr Darcy is still in any doubt as to the nature of Lizzie's sentiments then he is simply a berk, and the novel is far wiser than that about the successive waves of prejudice that wash over its principals. The actors have been hung out to dry by these long, staring takes - next time they might remember that the face can cut away even if the camera doesn't. There are other coarse touches too; when Lizzie sits at her mirror, Darcy's face looms up in the glass - as if the thing is a novelty picture frame. The visual gimmick tramples on the delicacy of the moment - which is inspired precisely by the fact that Lizzie can't see his face, can't confidently read the expression that sat there at their last encounter. A better production might have had her searching for clues in her own features, a divided mind face to face with itself.

Last night's Omnibus, about the protective Janolatry which generates such quibbles, came at you with flirtatious skill. There was the title for one thing - "Presumption". What was presumptuous you wondered? Asking questions about the biography? Making the film in the first place? Then there was a teasing epigraph from Emma: "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure. Seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken." This promised something much more enigmatic than was actually delivered - a slightly frumpy television biography, which relied for considerable portions of its narrative on a slide-lecture given by a member of the Jane Austen Society. I realise that this was probably ironic, but it's a risky business when you can't quite tell the frame from the picture.

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