Despite Jane Austen's obvious skill as a storyteller, her novel, Pride and Prejudice, is somewhat asexual. Thankfully, the new film version of the literary classic introduces some much needed physicality into this far too courteous romance.
As someone who is supposed to criticize movies and whine about how they don't stack up to the books upon which they're based, I've been doing a bad job of late. Last month I gushed over the film version of Everything is Illuminated, especially as an accompaniment to the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. This month I find myself doing the same with Jane Austen's most celebrated and adapted novel Pride and Prejudice, and its latest film adaptation starring Keira Knightley.
When I first read the book in college, I remember getting immediately lost in the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and the misunderstood Mr. Darcy. Upon picking it up again for the sake of this column, I noticed a few new things that hadn't struck me earlier. This time I better appreciated Austen's comic observations as she satirizes the stiff and rigid Georgian society near the turn of the 19th century. As a time when women were pawned off to men with money, and marriage was treated like a business transaction rather than a union produced by love, Austen is sly and observant. In describing Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth's mother, she writes, "When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news".
Yet despite Austen's obvious skill as a storyteller and social commentator, I sensed very little true physicality in Pride and Prejudice. The characters are full of personality and presence, but they are often left as mere sketches physically. Austen puts very little of this descriptive sense on the page, leaving it up to us, the readers, to fill in the individual corporal colors.
That we are forced to use our imaginations a bit more is all well and good, but I couldn't help thinking that if any one chapter of the novel were to be presented in any one of my former writing workshops, there would be various complaints from my fellow scribes. Criticisms such as: "But what color are Elizabeth's eyes?", "How tall is Mr. Darcy?", and "What do the ball gowns look like?" would fill the air. There is a great deal of exposition and very little build up to the pivotal scenes, rendering the book rather facile. In the crucial scene at the end when Elizabeth finally admits to loving Mr. Darcy, Austen understates Darcy's reaction: "The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before . . ." Essentially Ms. Austen breaks the first law of any creative writing class: the classic 'Show, Don't Tell'.
This is where film can compliment a novel: by filling in the characters' outlines with vibrant human colors. In this new 2005 motion picture version of the book, Keira Knightley stars as the spirited and stubborn Elizabeth, second eldest of the five Bennet daughters. Knightly proves here that she can carry a film as the lead and is spot on when it comes to recreating the many charms that the character possesses in the book. She shows us Elizabeth's luminosity through her animated facial expressions and adds an effervescence to the delivery of lines like, "There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me."
As the 'desperate to marry her daughters off' mother, Brenda Blethyn's version of Mrs. Bennet is far more pleasant than the depiction in the novel. In Austen' hands, this maddening matron made me want to throw the book against the wall by the second chapter. In the film, Blethlyn allows us to see the anguish inside this worried woman. Between her heavy sighs and tightly clasped hands, we believe her when she complains of "poor nerves." It's a performance that gives us something more than the nagging bellyacher from the prose.
Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet is lovable if not more so than the doting father in the narrative. Additionally we get to see the way Mr. Bennet focuses much of his admiration on his favorite daughter, Elizabeth. The comic chemistry between Sutherland and Blethlyn is also first rate. You experience Mrs. Bennet's whining and Mr. Bennet's eye-rolling response in moments of living, breathing human quirkiness.
When Mr. Darcy enters the picture for the very first time, it's almost as if he were taken directly from my mind's eye and put up on the screen. Just as devastatingly handsome and seemingly haughty as I had envisioned him, Matthew Macfayden's Mr. Darcy is an amplification of everything in the book, if that's possible. Austen's Pride and Prejudice has him cold and affected, but this actor's haunted expression and watery blue eyes lend humanity to the character throughout the entire film that I had always thought to exist.
The scene in which Mr. Darcy first enters the film is worth the price of admission alone. Amidst a jovial ball of local townspeople, the camera pans to capture the buoyancy of characters fully in their element. When Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), Bingley's sister (Kelly Reilly), and Mr. Darcy arrive, the whole crowd goes silent. It is then that we are treated to the glaring contrast between the middle and aristocratic classes. Darcy, dressed in a fancy waistcoat, seemingly towers over everyone as he walks down the length of the room, but as Elizabeth quickly points out, "he looks miserable, poor thing."
Judi Dench, who plays Darcy's criminally imperious aunt (Lady Catherine de Bourg), is just as commanding and intimidating as her character in the novel. Dench's steady looks of disdain directed at every other living being in her presence, coupled with her deep and affected tone of voice, hammer home the vile essence of Lady Catherine's character. She couldn't have been cast better except perhaps if she were played by Glenn Close.
The broad English countryside and spectacular living spaces in the film also add increased sensuality that wasn't quite as prevalent in Austen's original. In the theater, when first presented with an outside view of Pemberley, Darcy's estate, the entire audience gave a collective gasp. In sharp contrast, the meager-in-comparison house where the Bennets live looks authentically lived in and middle class.
As far as the treatment of the actual story is concerned the screenplay, written by Deborah Moggach, follows the novel closely, even going so far as to faithfully reproduce some of its dialogue. Minor characters do disappear and scenes unnecessary for the film's narrative are dropped, leaving director Joe Wright's adaptation fresh and entertaining.
Of course at the end of the film, we get to see the long-anticipated kiss between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (it is only vaguely alluded to in the book). Not surprisingly, this is a different ending than a previous British mini-series version of the story. There, the filmmakers simply showed Mr. Bennet sitting at his desk after consenting to Mr. Darcy's marriage request. He wraps up the arrangements by saying: "And if any young men come for Mary or Kitty (Elizabeth's sisters), send them in, for I am quite at my leisure."
But this is a story about emotional connection, and we Americans long to have the big sweeping final embrace to top off our overwrought romances. The British are apparently more content to have their love stories end courteously, rather than sealed with a kiss. In either variation, Pride and Prejudice stands as one of Jane Austen's finest books, and thanks to this latest cinematic adaptation of the story, we can finally see some of the passion that has long been missing from her prose.