The authors of the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have the unenviable task of both converting a lengthy, complex novel into a film of watchable length and conveying a story written during the Regency of George IV to an audience living in the days of rascally Prince Harry. In confronting these obstacles, the director and screenwriters have taken the obvious solution, simplifying and coarsening the story so as to appeal to a hypothetical moviegoer who knows little of Austen’s work and understands less, yet is avid for what she imagines an Austen story to be: a good, old-fashioned romance, like Casablanca or You’ve Got Mail. This viewer isn’t familiar with the term “comedy of manners,” but she loves TV sitcoms, so she’ll get the jokes if you make them a little punchier, encourage the actors to be a bit arch and really hit those punch lines. She’s unfamiliar with the complex etiquette of the period and not really interested in learning, so it’s necessary to drop a bit of the formality and let the characters just, y’know, act normal, and she, like, doesn’t understand why it was such a big deal who you married back then, so the social stratification must be made really obvious. The Bennets must not be comfortably middle class; they must be on the edge of poverty, their clothes worn and dirty, their hair bedraggled. The house at Longbourn, usually understood to be a grand, handsome old manse of middling size, must be a smallish, crumbling red-brick pile, with a yard hung with washing and adorned by all manner of livestock. By way of contrast, the estates of the wealthy characters must be as grand as possible; this Pemberley is more museum than home, and Rosings is the size of a small city.
This isn’t your grandmother’s Pride and Prejudice but, surprisingly, it’s not a travesty of the book either. Most of the novel’s events and even much of its dialogue have survived, though the dialogue may be transposed into a different scene and even given to a different speaker. What’s missing is much of the pomp and stuffiness we may associate with filmed Austen. The rhythms of this film are modern; the scenes are terser than we expect, and the dialogue is less formally spoken, overlapping and sputtering in a contemporary way. The novel has been “opened out” as though it were a play; whenever possible scenes are taken from the drawing room and into the open air, alternately lightening the film’s tone and adding melodrama. Its England is, for the most part, unusually sunny and beautiful, but there’s always a driving thunderstorm around the corner when it’s needed for dramatic effect. The film’s lack of stateliness largely achieves its purpose: It succeeds in making the characters and situations more immediate, more real to contemporary audiences; it allows the filmmakers to abridge the story without losing the emotional impact.
It helps that the casting mostly works. Keira Knightley may be more beautiful than we’d imagine Elizabeth Bennet, and her manner is certainly more modern, but she well embodies Lizzy’s stubborn spirit. As her older sister Jane, Rosamund Pike, best known as the reluctant Bond girl, icy Miranda Frost in Die Another Day, seems both younger and softer here, an ideal embodiment of Jane’s affable nature, though her beauty, too, is inescapably modern. Their youngest sister Lydia is played by an American, Jena Malone (the tender unwed mother of Saved!), but she manages both the accent and the frivolous stupidity of the character admirably. Their mother, equal to Lydia in sheer folly, is the redoubtable Brenda Blethyn, and their father is Donald Sutherland, whose screen presence is really too aggressive for this very recessive character, always retreating to his library to escape the chatter of his silly wife and daughters, but nonetheless embodies his good-humored ambivalence well.
On the other hand, Simon Woods’ Mr. Bingley is all youth and high spirits, as he should be, but his take on the character is really too goofy and goggle-eyed to work. This Mr. Bingley is too much a ninny to win the love of even the unusually charitable, but still intelligent, Jane Bennet, let alone to be the closest companion of the excessively serious Mr. Darcy. Matthew MacFadyen, who plays Darcy, offers an interpretation that is in no way untrue to the book yet is thoroughly distinct from Colin Firth’s indelible, glowering performance in the 1995 BBC miniseries. From the moment of his introduction at the ball at Meryton, MacFadyen’s Darcy is clearly as much shy and awkward as he is haughty, permitting us to perceive his character and motives more quickly than in either the book or the earlier adaptation. And in the role of Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Judi Dench is an ideal choice, with her great old bulldog face beneath a towering meringue of hair; her marvelous imperiousness has a bit of old-school, Bette Davis archness.
The screenplay is by British novelist and television writer Deborah Moggach, with an uncredited rewrite by Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for and starred in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. In streamlining the story to just over two hours, they’ve removed every character that might be expendable: Gone are the Hursts, the Phillipses, and the Gardiner children, and Sir William and Miss Maria Lucas no longer go with Lizzy to visit Mr. Collins and Charlotte. Despite their tinkerings, they have kept the central incidents and themes intact, they’ve retained the novel’s dialogue where they could, and in adding new dialogue they’ve made an attempt — though not always successful — not to lose the musical quality of Austen’s writing.
The director, Joe Wright, shows some visual ingenuity in choreographing crowds and in the montages that show the passage of time, and there’s humor in the way the camera flits about with Mrs. Bennet in a dither but, in trying to bring the story to ground level, he’s also lost some of the majesty of the novel. While trying to sell Austen to an audience that may not be willing to buy at any price, he’s sacrificed some of her own level-headed good sense; he’s made her much more like the Romantics whose excesses she sometimes mocked. The greatest casualty is the development of Mr. Darcy’s affections for Lizzy. The early scenes are rushed so that the slow, reluctant overcoming of his objections and doubts that is so gradual and inevitable in the book here takes about 15 minutes, and some of the import and the impact are lost. But despite its speeding up and the filmmakers’ indulgence in some small “r” romanticism, particularly toward the end, the growing affection between Mr. Darcy and Lizzy is moving, largely due to the excellent performances of both Knightley and MacFadyen. Austen’s major points are still made, and the themes of the title come through. It would be easy to carp about all that’s missing from this interpretation of Pride and Prejudice, but I choose instead to take a page, literally, from Austen’s book: “[W]here other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.”
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()