Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pride and Prejudice 2005 Review

It may be very nice, but it’s not Jane Austen
A review of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice

While I have not yet personally seen the new Pride and Prejudice starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew McFadyen, I have seen the previews released before the movie several times and read many reviews by people whose opinions I trust. I have also read the book many times and watched the 1995 movies starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as much as possible. Therefore, although I have not seen the movie, I do feel somewhat qualified to make a judgement of it based on these factors.

I have read some reviews which said essentially (I am not quoting from any one in particular) “Well, it’s not like the book, or even like the old movie, but I could forgive it for a lot of things because of the beautiful cinematography.” However, I personally take exception to the style of cinematography. With its dramatic swooping shots, and beautiful but wild landscapes it is better suited to Charlotte Brontë than Jane Austen. Austen is, above all, controlled and contained. I do not believe that she would have enjoyed Brontë’s melodramatic style any more than Brontë enjoyed Austen’s “middle class” books, and it is certainly a pity that this style of cinematography has been adapted to an Austen work. (By the way, why a cliff exactly? As a friend of mine pointed out, the rocks in the 1995 P&P are just plain more interesting. Cliffs are rather overdone.)

Let us compare this for a moment to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Here the cinematography, while beautiful, is restrained and controlled, just as Lizzy is. Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzy, or for that matter, Jane Austen’s, would never go into a hissy fit when her parent (we’ll get back to that later) wants her to marry Mr. Collins. Instead she holds her ground while maintaining her dignity. She refuses to marry Mr. Collins, but she retains our respect while doing so. When Kiera Knightley goes into her temper tantrum I want to throw cold water on her.

One of the aspects that annoys me the most about the 2005 P&P is the lack of respect for the book. It seems that the screen writers for this movie somehow did not understand that people have been in love with this book for 200 years. In particular, those who love it have either memorized it or nearly memorized it. There are certain lines which anyone who loves the book will look for in a movie version. When they are not there the Jane Austen lover is deeply disappointed. And this movie lacks many of those lines. For instance, in the book one exchange between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy goes like this:
‘“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
“My fingers,” said Elizabeth, “do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women’s do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault—because I would not take the trouble of practising…”
Darcy smiled and said, “You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.”’

It appears like this in the 1995 P&P:
Darcy: "I have not that talent, which some possess, of conversing easily with strangers."
Lizzie: "Why, I do not play this instrument as well as I should wish, but I have always considered that to be my own fault, because I would not take the trouble to practice."
Darcy: "You are quite right. You have employed your time much better. We neither of us perform to strangers."

And like this in the 2005 P&P:
LIZZIE: (cont'd) Prepare yourself for something very dreadful. (stops playing) The first time I saw him, at the Assembly, he danced with nobody at all - even though gentlemen were scarce and there was more than one young lady who was sitting down without a partner.
DARCY: (colouring) I knew nobody beyond my own party.
LIZZIE: (smiles sweetly) True, and nobody can be introduced in a ballroom.
LADY CATHERINE: Fitzwilliam! I need you!

Fitzwilliam moves away. Darcy and Lizzie are alone. Darcy's struggling with his pride which suddenly gives way.

DARCY: I do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before.
LIZZIE: Perhaps you should take your aunt's advice and practice.
Darcy flinches. Lizzie turns away from him and carries on playing. Darcy gazes at the curve of her neck.

The difference is startlingly apparent. In both the text of the novel and the 1995 screenplay, Lizzy certainly teases Darcy, yet she is not cruel. In the 2005 screenplay she is almost mean. But for the reader there is a more serious accusation. I hope that I am understood when I say that the beauty and felicity of the language of Miss Austen has been stripped away in the 2005 screenplay. Compare “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess, of conversing easily with those I have never seen before,” or even “I have not that talent which some possess of conversing easily with strangers” to “I do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before.” Even though in this specific example most of the line is the same through all three, the 2005 screenplay is much the worse—why “people I have never met before” instead of “strangers”? Did the writer imagine that the ignorant movie-going audience wouldn’t know the word “stranger”? And so we miss the exquisite underlying meaning of Miss Austen: to Darcy Lizzy is a stranger even though he is fascinated by her.

One more of these examples. When Mrs. Bennet tries to use her husband to force Lizzy to marry Mr. Collins, Mr. Bennet comes back with one of the greatest comedic lines in Pride and Prejudice. “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” What a wonderful line, with its unexpected catch phrase! And Benjamin Whitrow delivers it with just the right amount of dry humour in the 1995 P&P, while Alison Steadman reacts perfectly as Mrs. Bennet, nodding along until the last phrase when she sinks crying into a chair. Unfortunately, the screenwriters of P&P 2005 once again felt that it was not right, and so changed it to “”

But really this issue of changing the lines in some respect is a rather serious one. How can you claim (I am not referring to any statement put forth by the actors, writers, or producers of P&P 2005 other than the use of Miss Austen’s name and that of Pride and Prejudice) to be faithfully representing the work of Jane Austen when you constantly change what she said? If you believe that you are a better writer than Jane Austen you have some serious ego-issues. Sadly, this appears to be the belief of the 2005 screenwriters.

Now we pass on to another problem I have, namely the amount of sensuality in the 2005 movie. I am not one to deny that there is a sensual side to Jane Austen. There is. There is great passion in her novels and in the 1995 movie. But, once again, it is restrained. The passion is not expressed by steamy scenes, but by the way Darcy and Lizzy look at each other, the way their shoulders move closer when they walk. It is present when Lizzy accidentally walks into a room where Darcy is shooting pool, even though that scene lasts only a few seconds and they are never within two feet of each other. The romantics among us (I plead guilty) must wait until after they are married for them to kiss. Even when they are engaged, they merely walk next to each other. They don’t need to do anything else. The quiet smiles that they share are all that is needed. The 2005 movie goes for the exact opposite effect. During the first proposal scene, when Lizzy declares that Darcy is the last man in the world she would ever marry, they are standing on top of each other and then move closer. To all appearances, they are about to kiss. That they do not is somehow a mistake, an oops, don’t worry, that comes later. Naturally this then removes much of the central tension of the plot as well as drastically changing it by changing the real feelings of Elizabeth toward Darcy. How are we supposed to believe that her feelings have changed after that scene? No, instead we are supposed to believe that she has simply uncovered her “true” feelings—that they were there all along and she just denied him. All right, quite plausible. But it’s not the way Jane Austen set it up.

Also, the ending in the United States was considered notoriously sensual by many. (This even leaving aside the question of why it was considered necessary to have separate endings for the US and the UK.) Have Darcy and Lizzy turned into high schoolers? We can hope not, but I am afraid that the evidence is against us. Instead of a meeting of mind and character we have, well, a meeting of bodies primarily. I am afraid that is rather frank, but then so is the movie.

In the end, after examination of the text of the novel and the text of the two screenplays, I am forced to conclude that the screenwriters of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice unfortunately chose the easy road—the road of cheap thrills and art shots, of high school romance versus the real thing. They also, again unfortunately, seem to have considered their audience dumb enough to require a watered-down Jane Austen as if we couldn’t take the real thing. I am also forced to conclude that Andrew Davies and the team that produced the 1995 miniseries did none of those things. Certainly there is beautiful cinematography (think Pemberley rising from the pond) and certainly there are romantic moments (think The Look) but it is faithful to Jane Austen—not word by word or line by line, but faithful to her spirit and to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice, to the book which has been loved by so many people for so long. Charlotte Brontë not withstanding. Perhaps much of this may be attributed to the fact that they did not try to squeeze the story into two hours. I understand the restraints of commercial movie making, but it is well-nigh impossible to get everything in, with the result that Wickham and Lydia have largely been left out, again to the detriment of the plot. Perhaps some day I will see the 2005 Pride and Prejudice but I’m afraid it won’t be with high hopes. After all, I’ve read the screenplay.

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