HomeEntertainmentMoviesThe December Comfort Watches, Day Thirty: Pride and Prejudice

The December Comfort Watches, Day Thirty: Pride and Prejudice

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Because I am a shallow and terrible person of poor breeding and low station, I am not much for the written works of Jane Austen. To be clear, I am not singling out just Jane Austen here; most of 19th century English language literature is a rough ride for me because it jars my brain. The words are the same but the sentences and paragraphs don’t hang together right for me, and it’s not really until the 1920s that language usage snaps into a form I can flow through, instead of feeling it chug in my head. This is, I assure you, a me problem. Neither Austen nor any of the rest of the 19th Century English language literary world needed to take my preferences into account, not least because I would not even exist until well into the second half of the 20th Century. Austen was a fantastic writer. Just not so much for me.

Filmed versions of Austen’s work (and the occasional attendant current-day riff off of it) do turn out to be for me, however. Part of that has to do with the stories having to necessarily be adapted to more modern audiences, which include me, to be successful and palatable. Part of it is that I find the era of which Austen writes to be fascinating — far enough away to be another world, close enough that the concerns of that world still echo through ours. Part of it is that, my prejudices concerning sentence structure aside, Austen was a magnificent storyteller, delving into women’s lives and the issues of class and wealth and how precarious the position of her characters were in relation to all of that.

Another part of it is that, for whatever reasons, Austen attracts really interesting filmmakers to her. The filmed versions of her works tend to be smart and sharp. My own introduction to Austen on film came in 1995, with the contrasty one-two punch of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (based, loosely, on Emma), and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, the script for which was written by Emma Thompson. One was modern-day and one was a period piece, and both worked exceedingly well, in very different ways. Thompson walked off with a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for her work, and in her acceptance speech joked about going to Austen’s grave and telling her ghostly collaborator about the box office grosses from around the world. 1995 also saw a film adaption of Persuasion, and an extremely popular TV miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, which launched Colin Firth, wet and heaving, into the bosoms of Austenites everywhere.

That last one presented an issue for 2005’s version of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright in his theatrical debut. The miniseries, which in addition to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy also starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, was so beloved that another assay of the novel was, as I understand it, something tantamount to heresy. This was made more so by Wright’s choice to move the era of events back twenty years or so into the late 18th Century, to trim the story considerably to focus on the love story of Elizabeth and Darcy, deviating from it only when doing so would illuminate their fraught relationship, and to (relatively) impoverish the Bennets so as to make their situation in the film more obviously precarious. Choices, as they say, were made, not all of them popular.

Those choices, however, endear this version to me. Joe Wright (and screenwriter Deborah Moggach, with an uncredited assist from Emma Thompson) was correct to treat Austen’s work as a living document, and not one set in stone, from which one deviates at one’s own peril. This version of Pride and Prejudice vibrates with life. Its world is lived in, and its characters are people you could know in your own life, although, probably, not with such nice houses.

The story, if you don’t know: The Bennets, country gentry implied to be on the lowest rung of polite society, have a problem, in that they have five daughters, no sons, and a need to marry off the girls to suitable men before their house is inherited by a distant relation purely because he’s man. Eligible and very rich bachelor Mr. Bingley arrives in the neighborhood, and suddenly there’s a ball, where he’s introduced to everyone, including the Bennett daughters. Also at the ball: Bingley’s diffident friend Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden), who rubs young Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightly) the wrong way when she hears him casually dismiss her, and indeed, most of the county. She resolves to have nothing to do with that annoying Mr. Darcy.

Of course, she will have quite a lot to do with Mr. Darcy through the course of the story, as the two headstrong leads find themselves in the same room over and over, and their friends, families and circumstances intertwine. Darcy takes a fancy to Elizabeth, and why wouldn’t he, but she is not impressed, either with his riches, which are even more considerable than Mr. Bingley’s, or what she sees as his interference with Bingley’s potential courtship of her sister Jane. It will take a few more crises, and re-evaluations, before Elizabeth and Darcy learn to overcome their pride and their prejudices, and yes, I see what I did there, and I’m not sorry.

So much of the success of this film rides on the interaction of the two leads, and Joe Wright got lucky with the leads he has. Knightly’s Elizabeth is the late 18th Century version of a tomboy, in love with the countryside, fiercely loyal to and protective of her family, forthright and glowing from the inside with the sort of intelligence that sees everything, tries to understand it all, and is not inclined to settle for less than what is fair and right. You can see why Darcy falls for her, and also, why Elizabeth at least initially decides he, regardless of his wealth and station, does not match up.

Which brings us to Macfayden’s Darcy, who is an interesting puzzle. He’s awkward and abrupt in a manner that feels to me almost spectrum-y; he’s either feeling nothing (except irritation), or he’s feeling everything, in a way that’s overwhelming, and which he clearly doesn’t understand why it isn’t immediately acquiesced to by Elizabeth. His Darcy doesn’t know how to people, basically, or at least, not on the terms that include other people’s interests and considerations above his own. And why should he? He’s rich as hell (when Elizabeth Bennet first sees his house, her reaction is to laugh at its absurd scale) and people are more than willing to bend around him — this behavior, alas, has not changed much from Austen’s time to today.

Darcy’s confused by Elizabeth, who is not impressed with him, or by his estate. Perhaps the most pleasant fiction Austen weaves is the idea that someone of Darcy’s circumstance can or will overhaul his view of the world to accommodate someone like Elizabeth (whose own required overhaul in perspective, while necessary for the story, is exponentially smaller). But I suppose love makes all of us do remarkable things, in fiction at least. In Wright’s telling of the tale, and with these actors, both Darcy and Elizabeth’s butting of heads, and meeting of minds, feels merited and earned.

Wright and this film also do a magnificent job of sketching out all of the characters, especially the Bennet sisters, not just by giving them dialogue, but by putting them in rooms with people and then letting them be who they are. This is how we learn Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike) is kind, Lydia (Jenna Malone) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan) are flighty and irrepressible, and Mary (Talulah Riley) would rather be at home with a book. Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline (Kelly Reilly) gets a huge amount of mileage from withering stares, while Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) gets an equal amount of mileage from tolerant smiles.

Wright films all of this with an eye that does not discount the mud over the pomp; Wright referred to this a “dirty hem” film because the Bennet’s country life would have a lot of those. This does not mean Wright choses naturalism over all. One of the most striking scenes has Darcy and Elizabeth dancing in a crowded room and then, with a word, everything else falls away but the two of them. Wright knows what he’s doing when he does that, just as he knows what he’s doing when, after Darcy helps Elizabeth into a carriage, the director focuses the next shot on Darcy’s hand. The focus and intentionality of Wright’s directorial eye is never in doubt here, and is one of the reasons I prefer this version over others.

This is not to run down the beloved-by-many 1995 miniseries version of this story. This 2005 version is not better, it simply has differing aims and choices, not the least is to fit this story in two hours instead of the miniseries’ six. Those aims and choices comport better to what I want to watch, and how much time I want to devote to it. This version of the story is, for me, complete, and magical, and one I immerse myself in whenever I want a romance on a grand scale.

I’d like to think Jane Austen would understand the choices made to her story here. Maybe we could get Emma Thompson to explain them to her.

— JS



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