Author: Luisa Perkins
•10:40 AM
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a classic book beloved by generations must be made into a film--or into several films, as the case may be. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is just such a book. A while ago, my dear friend and fellow Austen fan Annette Lyon and I discovered that we had widely divergent views on which is the 'best' version of P&P; we later came up with the idea of simultaneous posts highlighting the reasons why. Once you read mine, make sure to go read hers; thus our exposition will have been completed.

Unlike political candidates and Bible-bashers, Annette and I resolve to keep our pieces focused on the positive; we're both confrontation-averse like that. Besides which, neither of us expects to win any converts to our particular tents, as opinions in these matters tend to be steadfast and immovable. I realize that my position is that of the minority, so be specially careful and kind should you choose to comment.

I enjoy all the versions of Pride and Prejudice, from the 1940 Laurence Olivier film to the Colin Firth mini-series; from the Bollywood takeoff Bride and Prejudice to the movie we at our house call "Provo and Prejudice." My favorite, however, is the most recent: Joe Wright's 2005 production, starring Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley. Now that I've shocked and offended many of you, I'll explain why.

It used to be important to me that a film adapted from a book conform exactly to the book; very few movies can meet this rigorous standard. In fact, Gone With the Wind is the only one that comes to mind at the moment. I have a different view now, because I have come to believe that film and novel are fundamentally different types of art. When I want textual conformity, I'll go to the primary source: the book itself. When I want an visual and aural evocation of the emotions that the book arouses in me, I want a movie that has stayed true to the spirit of the book without sacrificing the dramatic nuances unique to the medium of film. And it is Wright's fluency in language of film that makes his production such a masterpiece.

Joe Wright decided to set his movie in 1797, when Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice (under the title First Impressions), rather than in 1813, when the novel was first published. The 16-year difference changes things dramatically as far as the look and feel of the production is concerned. Because 1797 was a year of transition (unlike 1813, when the Regency Period was in full flower), a greater range of contrast without sacrifice of authenticity was available to Wright's creative team. For example, the Directoire (later called "Empire," once Napoleon came onto the scene) style was only just coming into widespread fashion, and only the richest and most fashionable families would have embraced it fully at that time.

Wright's costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, took this into consideration. For special occasions, a mother like Mrs. Bennet, forced to be budget conscious, would naturally have focused on making sure her marriageable daughters were dressed as currently as possible, she herself wearing her best-quality dress (into which she could still fit) from years past. The wide variation of styles the viewer sees at Wright's balls and social gatherings serves to highlight the socio-economic chasms between people like the Bennets and the Darcy/Bingley families.

I also appreciate Durran's genius for meticulous fittings and wearable fabrics. All the cast members of Wright's production look as if they actually live in these clothes; they are at ease and move about comfortably, instead of looking trapped in costumes. It is the most natural-looking of all period dramas--let alone Austen movies--that I've seen.

Other cinematic details add to the sense of the everyday setting that was Jane Austen's forte: crumbs on the table; genteel women struggling with hangovers; families living on intimate terms with their poultry and swine. These little visual clues mimic the written ones Austen gives us, and give us a mundane background which the timeless romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is then able to transcend.

Augmenting the romance at every step is Dario Marianelli's gorgeous score. He bases his melodies on some of Beethoven's early sonatas, while also incorporating traditional English country dances and a smattering of Henry Purcell (England's most prominent 17th century composer). Marianelli entrusts his orchestration to the young but masterful Benjamin Wallfisch, who also conducts the recording. The result is a lush, lovely wallpaper, the perfect backdrop for the internal and external dramas that unfold. I don't buy movie soundtracks very often, but this was one I knew I wanted to own upon first hearing it.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which the music--specifically the dance music--is the only dialogue. Darcy and Elizabeth dance together, making semi-polite conversation at Bingley's overcrowded ball; in the next shot, everyone else in the room has been magicked away, and the couple is alone, completely wrapped up in one another. It is a scene in which the medium of film communicates perfectly the chemistry of the moment, one in which words would have been superfluous and ineffective.

Wright's casting (as realized by Jina Jay) is brilliant, with one notable exception. Scrawny, toothy Keira Knightley would not have been my first choice for Elizabeth. But then again, I've never agreed with how Elizabeth has been cast in any version of Pride and Prejudice; there are some I actively loathe. When viewed comparatively, Knightley tends to be the Elizabeth I dislike the least. (Whom would I have cast instead? Perhaps a young Emma Thompson. But I'd cast Emma Thompson in about anything.)

With everyone else, Wright makes up for his error with Elizabeth. Casting actors who were the age of the characters in the book was important to him; his choice to do so points up well both how young they are and how young Austen was when she wrote the novel (she was 21, a fact that never fails to blow me away as a writer).

The actors fit uncannily well with my internal vision of Austen's world. Brenda Blethyn drapes Mrs. Bennet's dithering over a backbone of steel; she is, after all her fluttering and fits, a survivor. As Mr. Bennet, Donald Sutherland's distant affability and selective vision concerning his children is pitch-perfect. Rosamund Pike's Jane is an ethereal picture of shyness and guileless warmth. Lydia is embodied flawlessly by Jena Malone; her giddy snobbery and sheer youth make her behavior all the more shocking, yet understandable.

Tom Hollander never takes the easy route with his portrayal of Mr. Collins; we have a sneaking affection for him despite his pathetic pomposity. Simon Woods is simply adorable as the hapless and easily influenced Mr. Bingley. With Rupert Friend in the role, it's the first time Wickham has been hot enough that elopement with a penniless soldier actually seems like an attractive option. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine? It doesn't get more perfect than that. And then there's Mr. Darcy.

And it's really all about Darcy, isn't it? I don't know what male readers of Pride and Prejudice think, but women love the book in large part because Darcy is so very swoonworthy. In the 1995 mini-series, Colin Firth is eminently soulful. And once you get past the dated makeup and elocution, Laurence Olivier's portrayal can't be faulted in the least. But it is Matthew Macfadyen who most resembles my Darcy.

When we first see him at the Assembly Ball, Macfadyen's Darcy is arrogant, priggish, and utterly unattractive. When I saw the movie for the first time, I was shocked; I had previously admired Macfadyen's considerable charms in the British television series "Spooks" (shown in the U.S. as "MI-5"). He was so very ugly as Darcy in this initial scene that I almost hoped Elizabeth would this time keep her word in swearing to "loathe him for all eternity." An hour later, my mind was changing pretty quickly; an hour after that, I was a goner. As Darcy, Macfadyen's transformation from perfectly awful to the most desirable man in England is pure magic.

It's so magical that the final scene of the movie--the notorious 'kissing scene'--disturbs me not at all. Why shouldn't the newly married Darcys enjoy some domestic bliss on their fabulous balcony at Pemberley? For me, it completes the fantasy. Jane Austen herself reportedly loved to tell friends and family the further adventures of all her creations; I can't imagine that, after going through so much work to get them together, she would begrudge her two most famous and beloved characters a tender moment or two.

Hmmm, now I feel like watching it all over again...but first, I need to go read Annette's post!
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22 comments:

On 15/2/08 , Annette Lyon said...

You're such a good writer, Luisa. Freak, woman. I feel like chopped liver in comparison. :)

You have lots of good points here that I agree with. Naturally, I still prefer "my" version, but from here on, I'll definitely see yours in a different light.

 
On 15/2/08 , Jenna Consolo said...

Wow. You are the best reviewer I've ever known. Your attention to detail is impeccable. "Your" version happens to be my favorite too, but I had never dissected why. Reading this has helped me to understand why. I kept saying to myself, "yeah, that's it!" I love the emotions that Austen conjures up, but I have a difficult time keeping my attention focused in her books. This story (P&P) is so incredible, and this version is one of my favorite movies, let alone Austen interpretation. I think it did such a good job of evoking the humanity and emotion of these characters (she was only 21 when she wrote this???!!!) that I think it has/will turn newer readers to her. I hope anyway!

Now, off to read Annette's!

 
On 15/2/08 , Kateastrophe said...

You say so beautifully exactly what I think about this version! I love all the movies but I share your favorite.

The transformation of Darcy is what did it for me I think.

 
On 15/2/08 , Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I share your preference, too, for pretty much all the same reasons, although I never would have been able to say them so eloquently.

And I love this version's Darcy. He's absolutely perfect. My problem with Colin Firth is that I love Colin Firth too much. Period. So I want him to change over time. And as Firth, he doesn't change enough. He's Colin Firth!

Okay, now that I've embarrassed myself with blather, I'm going to read Annette's post....

 
On 15/2/08 , Elizabeth said...

Hi Luisa,
I am finally commenting on your blog. Up to this point I have been too intimidated to do it.

While I confess that my favorite P&P movie is the A&E version, your review is brilliant. I am now feeling a great need to watch the 2005 production again. Unfortunately, I don't own it and the children are going to want dinner or something like unto it very soon.

Thanks for letting me know about this post and Annette's. I would watch any P&P version with you,
anytime.

 
On 15/2/08 , Of the War Hammer said...

woa! I just showed my friend the Provo and Prejudice today, excellent timing. I must cast my vote for the mini-series. Although I think it depends on my mood. A cheesy mood calls for the provo version. PMS, a chocolate mood, or any other indulgant pathetic state requires Colin Firth. However when looking for a good, realitively short movie the 2005 version is the way to go. Austen's book however, is good fo any mood.

 
On 15/2/08 , Thalia's Child said...

I have always (well, since it came out anyhow) preferred the look of the newest P&P. I didn't realize that there was a time difference in the setting, but it makes sense (my knowledge of costuming is rather more limited to the medieval & renaissance periods).

Fantastic review. I did a similar comparison last year between the BBC miniseries and this new one, and said much the same as you did. Just not nearly as eloquently.

 
On 15/2/08 , cablegirl said...

What a fantastic idea for a post. I can't wait to read the other blog with another choice.

You have quite an amazing way with words as a reviewer and I have to say you've sold me on this version, the one I think I have not seen yet.

I absolutely adore Austen and I agree that the goal of a period film should not be strict adherence to the novel form which it is based, but to convey the feeling and spirit of the book through visualization.

Well done.

Now I've got to look at your friend's blog. :)

 
On 15/2/08 , Michelle said...

I did love the visual richness of this new version - the scenery, the balls, all the extras, the costumes, the homes - it was just incredible. And I enjoyed watching the younger sisters who looked like actual teenage girls in this movie. (I adore Lydia in the long version, but she looks about 30 years old.) Jane was very pretty, as Jane should be.

But the A&E version will always my favorite. The main point of this story is the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. It's a story that unfolds slowly, and in small, subtle ways - a look here, a dance there, a comment heard through a third party, a letter received, and so on. In the long version, I am completely drawn into the development of the relationship; I see and understand how their feelings change over time. It's very believable, and I come to care about these characters and their relationship very much.

In the shorter version, I just didn't care at all whether or not these two got together. It was all so quick: I don't like him, now I do, happily ever after. Not enough time for me to get to know and love the two of them. The characters are never really fleshed out. I didn't find their love convincing.

No amount of big-budget scenery can compensate for that kind of flaw in the storytelling.

 
On 15/2/08 , Michelle said...

In case that wasn't kind or careful enough (yes, I'm feeling a twinge of guilt), I just want to publicly state how much I love, admire, and respect the fabulous and multi-talented Luisa Perkins. I'm sorry if my passionate feelings on this topic overcame my good manners. What would Jane Austen say about that?!

 
On 15/2/08 , dawn said...

I am here to confess; Luisa please forgive me and continue to be my friend. I have not seen the movie, I am not sure I have seen any of them. I am sure I have read the book, even twice if memory serves me, but it has been about 20 years or more. I will say, I loved your review, and your attention to detail and I have a desire to see the movie now. I think I will go crawl under a rock now, or should I say, back under my rock.

 
On 16/2/08 , Heffalump said...

That is my favorite version of Pride and Prejudice as well, although I do enjoy them all.
Now I want to go watch it again.

 
On 16/2/08 , Kimberly said...

I detested this version the first time I saw it. Tolerated it the next...etc...and now adore it, for the reasons you cited and others as well.

Colin Firth is lovely in his way, but he doesn't match up half so well as Matthew Macfayden. Mmmm...

I didn't like Keira Knightley in the role though. She didn't portray Elizabeth with the same energy as Jennifer Ehle did, and I found it difficult to get past that at first. While Mr. Darcy is a lovely pleasure, I think I enjoy Elizabeth more. Her intelligence, wit, and joyfulness have long delighted me. I'm too tired to be poetic or profound but my oh my, what a lovely, well written post!

 
On 16/2/08 , Anonymous said...

You know I love this version the very best. I still remember the night we all saw it together after book club. Oh, the sighing and the laughing! It was a magical night. I loved the wallpaper, the muddy hemlines, the exemplary vegetables.

My favorite scene is what the director refers to as "the car wreck" because it all happens so fast. After Lizzy finds out that Darcy is responsible for breaking up Jane and Bingley, she leaves the church and is standing out in the rain. Darcy shows up and confesses his love, couched in criticism and scorn. They argue back and forth, yell in each other's face, want desperately to kiss but ultimately back down. I think it's amazing.

Have you ever watched with the director's comments on? He is so self-effacing, well actually neurotically self-conscious would be a better description, but highly entertaining.

Elizabeth, it sounds like we need to have another Austen Monday and watch this P&P. Or you can borrow the DVD.

Karen

 
On 16/2/08 , Jenn in Holland said...

Well, I am sold. I have completely avoided seeing this one, for the very lame reason that it cast Ms. Knightly. And, okay, because it didn't stay here long at Dutch theaters. But after this lovely review, incredible review, I feel I MUST. SEE. THIS. MOVIE.
What a great piece!

 
On 16/2/08 , bubandpie said...

You've captured all the redeeming features of this adaptation (whose main flaw, I will admit, is simply that it isn't the BBC version and doesn't star Colin Firth). I love the way the movie mounted an interpretation of the story and its characters rather than a mere portrayal of them. The film, quite consciously I believe, treats all the characters with more compassion than Austen did: Mr. Bennet is genuinely affectionate toward his daughters, his marriage has a bedrock of mutual acceptance, and even Lydia is merely a misguided teen. (Like you, I was struck by how young all the characters were.) Mr. Darcy is depicted as the end of the novel insists he really is: more shy than arrogant, genuinely nice under his stiff demeanour.

The one thing I couldn't get past was the pigs in the house. I don't care how tenuous the Bennets' pretensions to gentility might be: the pigs would NOT have been wandering around Longbourn.

 
On 16/2/08 , Virtualsprite said...

See, I've always been a Colin Firth devotee, but now you've piqued my curiosity. I must check this out.

First, however, I'm going to reread the book.

 
On 17/2/08 , Tristi Pinkston said...

You have stated your case very intelligently and artistically. I still agree with Annette, but you are a very good writer and debater. :)

 
On 18/2/08 , Brillig said...

PARTS of your favorite are my favorite. I wish I could just get all four and chop and edit things from one to another until it suits me. I loved the cinematography of this last one, and the costuming and choreography, etc. And I dug the kissing scene at the end too. :-D But I wasn't wild about Macfayden and that... well... breaks the whole deal for me. (For the record, I DESPISED Colin Firth in the role too.)

I haven't seen Bride and Prejudice. I really must do that. And, of course, I own every other rendition including "Provo and Prejudice." hahaha. Love your name for it. :-D

(And I was going to vehemently disagree with you that Gone with the Wind conformed exactly to the book. Wo... we must have read different books or something. But that's a conversation for another day. hahaha.)

 
On 18/2/08 , Julie Q. said...

I'm still partial to the A&E version since I grew attached to the characters more over 6 hours than I could possibly in a 2 hour movie. But you make a good case here. I do think the musical score alone almost makes up for Keira.

And the opening scene with the fluid camera work is gorgeous!

 
On 28/2/08 , SydneyMin said...

Just discovered your blog today... Fantastic review! You have made me want to re-see this darn movie. It is a great movie, unless you have a different "favorite" P&P! Since my favorite actress (cheesy as she may be) is Greer Garson, I have to give credit to the B&W version with the brilliant Olivier. It definitely captures the buffoonery of many of the characters in comparison with Elizabeth (and you have a great point about B. Blethyn showing Mrs. Bennett's underlying iron will to not be thrown to the wolves.) And then there is *sigh* Colin Firth. It was just his role of a lifetime. The main thing I didn't like about your fave version is Keira Knightly since she's just not right! It always seems to me that she's holding her lips in an odd pout which may be her attempt at "acting." Thanks for the great writing!

 
On 30/5/08 , angelique said...

a belated comment:

you may have converted me - I have to admit that I liked the visual aspects of the movie from my 1st (well let's say 2nd) viewing - but you've warmed me up to the actors and the atmosphere of the film - I still think Wright let those actors rush through some of Austen's most delightful dialogue

Even better you've introduced me to your fabulous blog