Sunday, December 11, 2005

"Pride and Prejudice": The Brooklyn Arden Review

First, I quote: “Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one person you can't be without.”

Hello, clichés? Ending a sentence with a preposition? Only a passing resemblance to the novel? This tagline on the movie poster taught me exactly how much to expect from this version of "Pride and Prejudice," and for that I thank the marketing people at Focus Features, as otherwise I would be writing a much more keyed-up, pissed-off, and disappointed review.

As it is, I went in not expecting very much at all, and this is good, as I now call this "P&P: the 'What the Hell???' version." This name derives from the filmmakers’ incredibly puzzling interpretation of the novel, which results in pigs in the Bennets’ hallway, the First Proposal in the rain, shots of running deer, and sundry other “What the hell???” choices that don’t make sense historically, fictionally, or especially as an adaptation.

I can kind of guess at what they were thinking. P&P is one of the world’s Great Romances, and Lizzy and Darcy rank up there with Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind and Orlando, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff and Cathy, Lord Peter and Harriet, Rick and Ilsa, Harry and Sally, and Jesse and Celine (and I mean all of these entirely seriously) as classic romantic protagonists. Another Focus tagline for the movie was, “This holiday season, experience the greatest love story of all time,” and while that’s a title with a lot of competition, P&P would definitely be in the running.

But the filmmakers’ crucial mistake (which resulted in the WTHness) was in not distinguishing between a great Romantic romance, a la Romeo and Juliet and the Bronte examples given above, and a great Rationalist romance, a la Rosalind and Orlando, Lord Peter and Harriet, and all the cinematic examples cited. Romantic romances concentrate on feeling foremost: love at first sight, passion even unto death, “You are my everything,” blah blah blah. They are intense, sexual, dangerous, and the intensity and drama and danger of the relationship is of course as much of an attraction for the lovers as the individuals themselves are.

Rationalist romances do not lack feeling (or sex), but their protagonists are aware of principles and claims outside each other—they have a sense of proportion. As Rosalind puts it: “Men have died before, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” And they fall in love for reasons besides its forbidden nature, namely, that they like each other, they have things in common, they are kind to each other, they can talk to each other (a crucial element, as their conversations usually make up at least a third of the book/play/movie -- and you want to listen to them). As Austen describes it after Elizabeth comes to appreciate Darcy: “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.”

(Ah, an interlude of Austen prose. Didn’t that just bring a little delight and clarity to your day?)

Where was I? Yes. So. The filmmakers had a Great Romance on their hands, and knew it; but they chose to adapt, design, and especially shoot it as if it were a Romantic romance rather than a Rationalist one, probably because our benighted mass culture worships the commercialized signs of love much more than the actual thing they signify. The result is a case study in Form not following Function. As the lines quoted above show, the narrative voice in P&P is affectionate, precise, gently mocking. Cinematography’s role in a film adaptation is to reproduce that narrative voice (I am sure many film theorists would disagree with me), and the cinematography here was more suited to a Anne Rice adaptation than Jane Austen: overdramatic close-ups, unnecessary dramatic angles, lots of hand-held camera movements, occasional effects like Elizabeth staring at herself in the mirror as hours pass . . . These heavy-handed techniques perhaps carried the romance (particularly as the script does so little to establish it), but they drowned the humor, and they made Austen’s thoroughly linear, “light, bright, and sparkling” story and dialogue feel entirely beside the point. The movie wants P&P to be more passionate and romantic than it is, in the conventional Romantic windswept way, so it forces it into that mold, with ridiculous, unsatisfying results.

And while many of the script adaptations were a bit strange (Lizzy not telling Jane about the First Proposal? Mr. and Mrs. Bennet sincerely in love?) and the interpolations eyeroll-worthy (Mr. Collins making intercourse jokes? Eeeegh), the only unforgivable alteration was to the text of the First Proposal scene. What on earth is wrong with “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”? The answer is “absolutely nothing,” and I would send no compliments to this movie solely on the basis of that change.

That said, compliments. Most of the casting was strong, especially Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy; I even preferred him to Colin Firth of the great P&P2, as he was more expressive, more vulnerable, and less stiff. (Or, as the astute Editrix of AustenBlog said, “What a very fine, strapping, juicy hunk of British woof on the hoof. Bring that gaping frilly shirtage over here, sir, and you can leave your boots on.”) Keira Knightley did not get Elizabeth’s depths or sweetness (tending toward the pert, as most Elizabeths do), but she reminded me of how young Lizzy is supposed to be, and she looked pretty, at the least. Brenda Blethyn and Dame Judi Dench each excelled at what little they were given to do. The dresses were gorgeous, of course, and the country dancing made me quite long for a ball.

To close: When the DVD is released, I invite all my female readership over to play the "P&P:WTH" Drinking Game. The rules are these:

1) Whenever there is an overdramatic closeup, you drink.
2) Whenever there is livestock or a wild animal on screen, you drink.
3) Whenever there is a ridiculous line like “Your hands are cold,” you heckle, and then you drink.

A good time will be had by all. In the meantime: Feh.


  1. I'm going to have to go see it, just so i can complain along. I'm already amused by "WTH version". I think i'll help spread that nomenclature around.

  2. I liked your analysis. You were really strong on what really is "romance" and how the movie really goofed on this.

    My one quibble is that this is P&P4 and the version with Colin Firth is P&P3. I consider the 1979 BBC/Masterpiece Theater version P&P2, and the 1940 Hollywood version P&P1.

    I recently rewatched P&P2 and like P&P3 is a serious effort to adapt the novel to the screen. It is available from Netflix.

  3. Ah Keira. She's right up there with Kirsten (did you see the preview for Marie Antoinette?) and Kris Kringle (yay Christmas!). Love those "K" names.

    That being noted, thanks for your trenchant analysis. You've inspired me to go read P&P again.

    Were you the one who once said that one should read Austen at least thrice: once for the love, once for the humor, and once for the wisdom?

  4. I was indeed the person who said that [quoting someone on Austen-L (the Austen listserv), to give credit where credit is due]. And I was thinking about that quote this morning, actually -- that it's been so true in my own life, that at 13 I was swept away by the romance; in college I adored the humor; but now what I enjoy most is the comfort and wisdom I get from Austen . . . I was rereading "Persuasion" this weekend and felt every word.

  5. I had to visit this blog to find your review. I must confess that I found the visual aspects of the movie more charming than heretical, simply because they allowed me to see the novel enacted in a different light. So I enjoyed the movie on that level, and it hadn't even occurred to me that it might be faithful to the book or comparable in quality.

    You are certainly right that there was no period accuracy. Especially in the dialogue, which was too horrifying to even discuss (except when it was lifted directly from the novel).

    But the far more important thing I wanted to mention was that my boyfriend loved it! And this is someone who knows nothing about Jane Austen, and doesn't even normally read books, or at least not 19th-century British ones. But after seeing the film, he started reading the actual Pride and Prejudice, and now delights me with regular comments about the characters and their antics. We are also going to watch the A+E version. So the movie has created at least one new Austen convert, and maybe that is accomplishment enough.

  6. Now that i've seen it . . . I really appreciate your analysis comparing Romantic and Rationalist romances. Since i went with my acting class (our teacher paid), i was looking at the acting and directing choices.

    It was a messy version - interesting, but not period or society level accurate. Everyone's hair was messy, the house was messy, (the pig and geese were messy), the clothing was messy. And the dialogue was stilted. It was an interesting interpretation, but i don't think i could fall in love with it. I think part of my problem is that i have so much of the dialogue memorized (due to multiple re-readings of the book and re-watchings of the movie) and i knew when they'd passed up a good joke. And the phrasing was terribly out of time period. Ah, well. Worth seeing for interest's sake.

  7. I'm so glad you back-linked to this review. I abhored the movie. My husband and I own the A&E version and watch it yearly. The BBC version, which I first saw at the tender age of 16, is masterful, if not a bit stiff.

    But this new one? It's a travesty. We waited until it was released on DVD, not wanting to waste the money on theatre tickets. We cringed throughout the movie.

    And, while Judi Dench is by and far one of our all-time favorite actresses, we both felt like her interpretation of Lady Catherine was incredibly weak and disappointing.

    I think I've done better myself, whilst reading P&P out loud to my husband in a faux-British accent while he was up on a 15-foot ladder painting our foyer. :)