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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Starring Mrs. Bennet

By now, contemporary updates of Pride and Prejudice are legion. On the page, we’ve had P&Ps set in the worlds of lawyers, rock stars, evangelical Christians, and Midwestern doctors, to name but a few. On screen, we’ve seen the story peopled with matchmaking families in India, confused singletons in England, committed Mormons in Utah, and dog-show aficionados in New York.

Nevertheless, Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta, which aired Saturday night on Lifetime, stands out from its predecessors in one important respect – and I don’t mean its all-African-American cast. No, what sets this version apart is that it’s the first P&P I’ve seen in which Mrs. Bennet is the heroine of the story.

Partly, this is by design: Tracy McMillan’s script casts Mrs. Bennet in the narrator role, assigning her a version of the famous first line of P&P and allowing her, via voiceover, to comment on the action and critique Elizabeth’s choices. As a result, Mrs. Bennet inherits the wisdom and omniscience that, on the page, belong to Jane Austen herself.

And partly, Mrs. Bennet’s centrality is the result of a happy accident: Jackée Harry -- whose matchmaking matriarch is, in this account, the author of a self-help marriage manual -- is by far the most engaging actor on screen, delivering lines and reaction shots with a gusto and humor that provide a much-needed jolt of energy to the often-perfunctory proceedings.

Fundamentally, however, Mrs. Bennet gains gravitas because McMillan considerably softens and sentimentalizes Austen’s original. Instead of P&P’s gallery of foolish, irresponsible, or despotic adults, McMillan gives us an older generation who, despite their foibles, can be counted on to offer bracing platitudes of the “don’t-be-afraid-to-love” variety when the moment of crisis arrives.

In this version, Wickham is not a callous seducer but a wayward youth who just needs some help to get onto the right path. Darcy breaks up Bingley’s romance not out of snobbishness, but because he fears his friend isn’t ready for the committed relationship Jane deserves. Charlotte marries Mr. Collins out of genuine affection, not spinsterish desperation. Even overbearing Aunt Catherine reconciles herself to the unfortunate Darcy-Elizabeth alliance before the end of the wedding, jovially linking arms with Mrs. Bennet on the way out of church.

Although elements of Jane Austen’s plot remain – Jane’s heartbreak, Lydia’s indiscretion, Darcy’s assistance – the broader storyline, involving something about real estate development, historic preservation, and Darcy’s campaign for a seat in Congress, barely gets going before it rushes to a confused resolution with nary a nod to context, plausibility, or character development. *

Missed opportunities abound. Mrs. Bennet’s marriage manual, a rich comic vein, is barely touched. Reginae Carter’s Lydia (piercings, tattoos, Tinder dates) has almost nothing to do.

And the marriage plot that forms the ostensible heart of the story is pretty anodyne: Tiffany Hines’ Lizzie Bennet, a community activist with plenty of moxie but apparently zero political savvy, is abrasive rather than witty, and Juan Antonio’s Darcy is stiff and unappealing. Together, they ignite fewer sparks than an eighth-grade science experiment.

By contrast, Harry’s scenes with her husband, Reverend Bennet (Reginald VelJohnson), who heads a Black Baptist church, plausibly convey the affectionate familiarity of a long and happy marriage. When they spar over Mr. Collins (She: “A man like that doesn’t stay single for long.” He: “He’s been single for 40 years.”), they offer a glimpse of what a better movie might have looked like. Anyone up for a sequel starring these two?

* The problem may come down to time: By my estimate, something like a third of Lifetime’s two-hour broadcast slot was consumed by commercials. The final four-minute commercial break followed a six-minute slice of movie. It’s hard for even the best actors and most compelling script to develop any momentum under those conditions.

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