Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Everything's Already Been Said About the Movie, Pride and Prejudice Edition

In particular, buckets of ink, virtual and otherwise, have already been spilled about the Bronte-fication of the story (and since I've recently been profoundly unfair to male film reviewers, I'll just point out that Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker is the definitive version of this argument), and about the poppycock that is the film's alleged 'gritty realism' (said realism, I noticed, didn't quite extend to the scene in which Elizabeth arrives in Netherfield after walking there. Keira Knightley looks as dewy and fresh as if she'd just walked out of the hair and make-up trailer, and the camera doesn't even bother to show us the infamous six inches of mud on the hem of her dress).

But I'll start with the good, which is that the minor characters are almost uniformly a delight. One of the problems with the BBC miniseries (and yes, I'll be comparing the film to the Ehle/Firth version as often as I compare it to the book. Deal with it) is its reliance on shrill caricature--it's a rare viewer who can stomach Alison Steadman's turn as Mrs. Bennett for extended periods of time. Wright's P&P tones down Mrs. Bennett's cartoonishness, but more importantly, it does a better job with the three younger Bennett sisters. I don't think I realized how much I dislike Julia Sawalha's version of Lydia before I saw Jena Malone's effortless performance. Malone, who takes to the role of 18th century English flirt as if she hadn't made a career of playing slightly disturbing middle-American girl-next-door types, probably makes Lydia a bit more sympathetic than she ought to be, but at the same time her performance is girlish enough to remind us of the character's very real limitations (and of Wickham's odiousness in taking advantage of her), while her behavior when she returns to Longbourn has just the right amount of vinegar to it.

Similarly, I enjoyed Wright and Moggach's take on Mr. Collins, who is both less ridiculous than David Bamber's Collins and quite a bit more disturbing--there's an unthinking imperiousness to the character, particularly in his way of ordering Charlotte around, that suggests an extra dimension of hell in her married life. Penelope Wilton, AKA Harriet Jones, PM, is so thoroughly right as Mrs. Gardiner that I don't think I'll ever be able to stand anyone else in the role. But the real revelation, of course, is Talulah Riley as Mary Bennett, who in Wright's version of the story is transformed from a spinsterish egghead type to a heartbreakingly awkward geek. She tugs at the heartstrings of any of us who have hugged the wall at a party, not knowing how to join in the fun but desperately wanting to. It's a tiny part, but Riley quickly comes to dominate the film--our eye is drawn to her when she appears on screen, and we keep hoping for more insight into this sad young girl's heart.

What a pity, then, than none of the main characters have been treated with this kind of delicacy. I can't think of a single one who hasn't been poorly cast, written, and directed. Bingley as an idiot. Wickham as a thoroughly charmless fop. Lady Catherine as a creepy mafia don type instead of a thoroughly spoiled, and ridiculous, woman (it shouldn't be humanly possible to utter the line "If I had ever learnt, I should have been great proficient", and not bring down the house, but Judy Dench manages it. The scene in which Elizabeth tells Darcy and the Gardiners about Lydia's elopement, on the other hand, had me in stitches).

It certainly doesn't help that the adaptation butchers Austen's dialogue, so that the narrative moves forward in fits and starts that aren't justified by anything the characters have said to one another. Frankly, it put me in mind of the most recent Harry Potter film, which kept trying to hit all the salient plot points without justifying the transition from one to the next. Since feature-length adaptations like Thompson and Lee's Sense and Sensibility and the Root/Hinds Persuasion have previously managed to squeeze Austen's plots into less than two hours and still maintain their narrative flow, I don't think it's at all acceptable to use the film's limited running time to excuse its frenetic pacing, and I genuinely don't understand why Moggach couldn't create an equally coherent narrative.

It's already been said that Wright's version reduces the film to its basic romance plot, casting off Austen's wit, her social and moral commentary, and her delicate character development (there is absolutely no indication that Darcy changes during the film's course, or that he learns anything from Elizabeth's rejection of him. His crime and Lizzy's are simply that they have been fools in not recognizing that they love each other), but I hadn't realized just how thoroughly he eschews period manners, and how desperately they are needed in order for the story to make sense. Austen may have mocked her society's manners, but they were also vital to her understanding of human relations. Manners were the signposts by which society navigated itself, and Wright and Moggach do away with them entirely. Sure, the ladies and gentlemen bob up and down like rubber ducks in a bathtub whenever they run into each other, but the more subtle forms of propriety and decorum are nowhere to be seen. In the macro level, this justifies such absurdities as Darcy and Lady Catherine intruding on people in the middle of the night, and strange men being in the presence of unmarried women who are, by their own standards, completely undressed. On a more subtle level, however, it leeches the story of nuance.

Knightley and Macfayden are to be blamed here as well. When Ehle and Firth are on screen together, the air between them crackles. Prevented by the proper forms of etiquette from saying what they really think of each other, they let their eyes, their facial expressions, and their silences do the talking. They speak volumes with an arched eyebrow or a subtle smile, both of them brimming with intelligence and intensity. Knightley and Macfayden have had all that subtlety and nuance brought up to the surface, and yet (or possibly, therefore) they can't seem to manage a sliver of Ehle and Firth's passion. Their Elizabeth and Darcy are blanks, who are attracted to one another because the narrative tells us so. There's no hint of chemistry or attraction between them, nor any indication of the ways in which these two people challenge and complete each other. Beyond the standard conventions of the romantic comedy, we have no true understanding of why these two people initially dislike each other, and why they come to love each other so intensely.

When I catch an airing of the Ehle/Firth P&P, or even a very brief glimpse of it, I am invariably seized by the urge to take down the book and reread it. Wright's version didn't make me want to do that at all, so little did it recall that well-loved book. I don't honestly have a problem with a director and a screenwriter who take a written source and put their own spin on it--I think my reaction to Peter Jackson's variant on The Lord of the Rings speaks to the truth of that statement--but at no point during my viewing of Wright's Pride and Prejudice did I gain an inkling of what Wright and Moggach's spin on the novel might be. What kind of story were they trying to tell, beyond a paint-by-numbers romance that's been done, and done better, a thousand times before? Wright's film isn't Pride and Prejudice, but neither is it anything else.


Anonymous said...

Just curious: which ending did you see? I thought the UK version ended at a rather odd place, and looked forward to seeing the US ending on the DVD, as I thought it had to be better - but really not. It was the visual equivalent of reading Emma Tennant's book 'Pemberley'. Character-slaughter.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I saw the UK version - no kiss, which suits me just fine given what I've heard about that scene (I think I'd be OK with the kiss, but the dialogue I've heard quoted from that scene would probably have sent me into a diabetic coma).

I thought the film ended well enough, although one of these days I'd really like to see a version of the story that manages to incorporate the final chapter, with Lizzy's gentle teasing of Darcy and her letter to Mrs. Gardiner. The BBC version in particular has that knows-she's-happy-but-doesn't-yet-feel-it vibe to their reactions following the second proposal, and I would have liked to see them, after the initial shock, feeling a bit more comfortable with one another.

Helen Louise said...

I am sadly too much of a romantic to remain coldly unaffected by Matthew MacFayden sexily rambling in the early morning mist and rubbing noses with Lizzy...

I guess I loved Jane Eyre too much to be stern about Brontefication. (Though I hated Wuthering Heights. A friend once asked me, "But didn't you fancy Heathcliff?" Yeah, like I fancy throwing myself off a cliff)

But I think you're right nonetheless. The final scene (UK version) in which Lizzy explains to Mr Bennet just why she and Darcy make an excellent couple really felt like a scriptwriter's attempt at cramming in about an hour's worth of missing character development. It also seemed to attempt ill-conceived artiness (like why did everyone disappear when Lizzy and Darcy were dancing? That's just silly... Oh, and the bit where several months pass as Lizzy sits on a swing. Hmm).

I was also profoundly glad to have missed the US ending. Ugh. It's been too long since I last read the book to say how well I thought it was adapted, although perhaps the fact that it hardly reminded me of the book is a sign of that... although I did recognise Mary instantly.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I like Jane Eyre too, although I think it falls short of perfection (you'll get no disagreement from me re: Wuthering Heights either), but Bronte is Bronte and Austen is Austen. If the purpose was to make a romantic melodrama, then the producers should have made a Bronte adaptation, not tried to cram Austen into Bronte-ish form.

But, of course, Austen is a money-maker, with three successful films and one mega-successful miniseries in the last decade alone, whereas I can't even remember when the last Jane Eyre adaptation was made. So, the producers turn to P&P without, I suspect, having any understanding of what it is about.

Anonymous said...

Not showing the six inches of mud was, surely, the whole point; thus is the complete immateriality of said mud to Darcy's picture of Elizabeth in that moment imparted.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, as previously stated, I think I would have been a little more impressed with Darcy's ability to look past Elizabeth's disheveled state if she had actually been, you know, disheveled. Since Knightley looks like she's just come back from the salon in that scene, Darcy's (and Caroline's) reaction makes no sense.

The Rush Blog said...

[Well, as previously stated, I think I would have been a little more impressed with Darcy's ability to look past Elizabeth's disheveled state if she had actually been, you know, disheveled. Since Knightley looks like she's just come back from the salon in that scene, Darcy's (and Caroline's) reaction makes no sense.]

Really? Aside from the Netherfield Ball sequence and Elizabeth's visit to Pemberly, Knightley looked disheveled throughout the whole movie to me. Are you sure that this isn't a case of simply bashing the actress?

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