I saw the new Pride and Prejudice this weekend, and, despite my initial misgivings, I was pleased.
Now, this is not a faithful adaptation in many senses of the term. For one thing, it’s significantly shorter than the ultra-faithful 1995 BBC version, which (justifiably) launched Colin Firth to stardom,* and came in at around five hours long. This is trimmer, at only a little over two hours, and as a result, they cut out a lot of scenes, combine some others, and cut or combine some extraneous characters. You get a little less time to, for instance, watch Wickham be charming, so when he’s revealed as a tool,** you’re not really surprised, or invested enough to be surprised. One of Bingley’s sisters is cut, so the remaining one has to take on the bitchery that was usually shared between the two of them over a longer period of time into a few short scenes. (Fortunately, the actress handles that pressure with aplomb.) Everything just moves a lot quicker (until the very end, when time suddenly stands still, but that will be discussed later). Most of the time this is fine, although sometimes it’s clear they forgot little details. For instance, the visit Elizabeth pays at Bingley’s estate while her sister is there and ill is cut short, so that the scene in which her mother and sisters come to see how everything is going in the novel turns into the scene in which her mother and sisters come to pick the two of them up. But this isn’t obvious until they drive away, so one is left confused by the fact that Jane doesn’t join them downstairs when they come in, and the fact that Caroline Bingley seems so surprised at the extra Bennets’ appearance. But these are minor, and most importantly, when plot points hinge on minor characters, those plot points are delivered deftly and quickly.
Unfortunately, a lot is also dumbed down. Jane Austen always displayed incredibly subltey in her wit; nothing sounded insulting until you thought about for a few minutes. Some of that gets tossed away. For instance, instead of Elizabeth Bennet’s customary nonchalance at Darcy’s overheard declaration that she is not “handsome enough to tempt” him into dancing, she is visibly insulted and later throws those comments back at him, albeit humorously, and then walks off in slo-mo as triumphant music emphasizes her put-down of him. The movie also feels the need to explain things – like Charlotte Lucas marrying Mr. Collins – that the novel and other adaptations allowed the audience to understand for themselves. It’s occasionally irritating, but not truly detrimental.
There were two elements of this movie’s turn away from the source material and subsequent adaptations that I appreciated very much. The first is that it eschews the tradition of presenting Pride and Prejudice as a light, silly comedy of manners with no real emotional component. I suspect that the director or the script writer was a nerd in high school, because no one could capture the emotional pain of socially awkward characters like Mr. Collins, Mary Bennet (the boring, pedantic sister, who hates going to balls and prefers reading books of sermons), and even Mr. Darcy himself. He is so rarely portrayed as genuinely feeling uncomfortable and out of place at a country assembly, rather than just too good for his surroundings, and this depiction nails both.
The other, somewhat faithless, thing I appreciated was the way class was depicted in this film. In the novel, the way it’s explained is the way it needs to be explained to an early 19th-century novel reader, i.e., not at all. Although I’ve always liked the BBC miniseries, I agree with Stephanie Zacharek’s criticism that it concentrates very hard on being pretty at all times. It’s possible that the way Longbourne (the Bennet home) is decorated absolutely correctly in a periodic sense, and that the Bennet family is dressed absolutely correctly, but to modern eyes, it’s difficult to tell the difference in material wealth between the Bennets and Mr. Bingley based on home and dress, because they all look pretty and old-fashioned to us. And though Pemberley (Darcy’s estate) is obviously bigger than Longbourne, it’s not obviously nicer. Very little about the dress of the Bennet girls in comparison to the Bingley sisters or Georgianna Darcy makes their economic differences obvious. This movie may (or may not – I certainly don’t know what an early-19th-century middle-class chair looks like) not be as historically accurate in its details, but it certainly does a better job of driving home exactly what is at stake financially for the girls.
Also driving home that point is a much-improved (to my mind) Mrs. Bennet. I wrote a paper last year on depictions of her (including the one in the original) and found that she’s always shrill and ridiculous, despite the facts that 1) she has a very legitimate concern about the future of her girls, of which Jane Austen is obviously not unaware, and 2) she’s right about nearly everything. The novel opens on her fervent desire to see her eldest, prettiest daughter married to the new owner of Netherfield, and lo and behold, it happens. True, she doesn’t get to see any of her daughters married to the man who will inherit the estate, but Elizabeth, the daughter she was pushing in that direction, marries the wealthiest man any of them have ever met instead, so it all works out. Mrs. Bennet’s real fault in the novel seemed to be that she was just too obvious about these things, too honest, in a society that was supposed to hide these motivations. (That’s why the moments in this movie in which other characters were too honest about their motivations – like Charlotte Lucas when she explains to Elizabeth why she’s marrying Mr. Collins – bugged me. If that’s Mrs. Bennet’s fault, all the other people in the story can’t share it.) Most depictions of Mrs. Bennet, though, make her purely ridiculous, and none of her statements or emotions are meant to be taken seriously. This film managed to balance the inappropriateness of her character and overabundance of her emotions with the very real nature of the Bennets’ problem. Furthermore, we were more able to see how easily any of the Bennet women, the haloed Elizabeth and Jane included, might fall into similar behaviors. One of the cutesy visual jokes of the movie (which, despite being cutesy, I liked) was the constant eavesdropping at the door at innappropriate moments – and the constant being caught at it.*** Elizabeth and Jane participated in this habit with as much enthusiasm as their mother and sisters.
Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of Mr. Bennet really drives this home. He’s tragic, really. Sad and weary at all turns, a gentleman farmer who is afraid he hasn’t been very good at either, and a father who knows he’s done a piss-poor job of providing for his daughters, but still can’t stand the idea of their marrying for money. Usually, he’s Mrs. Bennet’s straight man, the one winking at the audience (and Elizabeth and Jane) to let us know that he knows how ridiculous she is. But this version allows him to be every bit as aware of his negligence as he ought to be.
While I don’t mind that the costumes and the set design may have been fudged a little to make us understand who has money and what having money means, I do mind a couple of anachronisms that seemed out of place. Most egregious was Mr. Bingley walking into the bedroom Jane is staying in while she’s sick at Netherfield (Bingley’s house). I know most modern audiences who have no historical perspective whatsoever wouldn’t understand, if Bingley’s so in love with Jane, and she’s in his house for days, why they don’t see each other that whole time. But for a man to just wander into the bedroom of an unmarried female guest while she’s in her nightgown? It’s the equivalent, today, in embarrassment and inappropriateness, for the guy you like to wander into your bathroom while you’re putting in a tampon. Also, at one ball, Caroline Bingley appears to be wearing a sleeveless dress. I know that the richer and more urban you were, the more daring your dress tended to be, but I think that’s pushing it.
I also minded a lot one other area of faithlessness. I always loved Jane Austen’s ability to deliver romance stories that leave out the mushy stuff. Once you know a pair were together, that was pretty much it. The end. Sometimes, she’s even teasing to her reader. When Edward comes to propose to Elinor at the end of Sense and Sensibility, the readers have to leave the room with her sister and mothers; we don’t even get the pay-off of a proposal scene. And, quite famously, we never see kissing. It’s part and parcel of the whole idea that, though Jane Austen appears to be writing about lurve, she’s really writing about money and manners and hypocrisy. Though this movie does a very good job with the first, and an okay job with the other two, it insist on having the mushy love stuff, too. As fast-paced as the movie has been to that point, once Elizabeth has more or less vocalized her desire to be Mrs. Darcy (to his aunt, played brilliantly and imperiously by Dame Judi Dench), the movie slows to a stop. Elizabeth runs outside**** and sees Mr. Darcy approaching her through the fog. Very, very, slowly.
A digression: I was reminded of an incident when I was an undergrad at Brandeis. I was assistant stage managing a play, someone’s senior thesis for their theater major, and there was a scene which began with an old man working at a book shop. The director (who was crazy in an almost stereotypically director-y way) and the actor playing the old man decided that the most hilarious thing ever would be if the transition music into that scene was “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles, and if the actor would walk to the center of the stage where his desk was v . . . e . . . r . . . y, v . . . e . . . r . . . y, s . . . l . . . o . . . w . . . l . . . y. Seriously. Maybe one footstep per ever half-bar. We all thought they were nuts. We were begging them not to do this. The play was already kind of confusing and out there, and we thought this would just put the audience over the edge and we would lose them. We were wrong. The audience burst out laughing, and didn’t stop laughing for the entire walk.
Okay, end of digression. Because this slow walk was not at all the same. It was not funny or romantic; it was boring. And then, when they finally meet, they get all melty, and Elizabeth actually KISSES his HAND, and looks all moonily at him with the Lauren-Bacall-patented chin-down, eyes-up look, like they might actually do it right there in the fog. Then they extended the talk between Elizabeth and her father so we could be really, really convinced they were in lurve. Then, THEN, we were subjected to a scene which appears nowhere in the novel, in which Mr. and the now Mrs. Darcy canoodle on his balcony and talk about how happy the are and they actually KISS. Which made me very mad.
But I enjoyed. I must commend Kiera Knightley, for doing a better Elizabeth Bennet than I thought she would, and to commend Matthew MacFayden for his very endearing, and very un-Firth-like Darcy. I always loved Colin Firth in that role, of course. He was the sine qua non of arrogant, stand-offish sexiness. MacFayden gives Darcy vulnerability (and seems somehow younger). My friend used to talk about the way Colin Firth looks at Elizabeth Bennet as eye sex. Having seen this version, I would say that Colin Firth was having eye sex, as in, he was looking at the person with whom he was having sex with in his mind at that moment. MacFayden’s Darcy looked at her like he was looking at the person with whom he morosely thought he’d never be able to have sex with. It was hot, in an entirely different way.
Overall, I was a very pleased movie-goer. And it’s very rare for me lately, to approve of a piece of narrative art. Kind of restored some of my faith in storytellers. (In case you’re interested, Veronica Mars is the other thing that’s restored my faith in storytellers.) You know, except for the kissing part. Ew.
*In fact, the only scenes that were not in the novel but were in the mini-series were 1) Colin Firth taking a bath, 2) Colin Firth fencing with an open-collar shirt on, and 3) Colin Firth swimming in a pond in his extremely thin white shirt and tight pants and then coming out of the pond and promptly running into the love of his life while dripping wet.
**I follow a spoiler policy similar to Television Without Pity‘s. This novel is nearly 200 years old. If you don’t know the plot structure, that’s the fault of your high school English teachers, not mine.
*** Actually, one of my favorite scenes, which broke my heart, really, was the scene in which Elizabeth has finally and conclusively turned down Mr. Collins, and at the moment he is realizing his rejection, the door swings open, having accidentally been pushed by one of the eavesdropping sisters, some of whom are giggling. That proposal is usually played for laughs, but this film goes for pathos, really. For the first time in my very long history with Pride and Prejudice, I kind of wanted to hug Mr. Collins.
**** This movie takes the characters outside a lot more than the BBC version did, and I loved that. Sometimes it fell on the treacly side. I know it rains a lot in England, but does it really rain so conveniently every time Darcy and Elizabeth step outside to have a “moment”? But Austen herself is constantly pushing her heroines to go on walks, and Elizabeth is supposed to be a pretty outdoorsy girl, for her time and class, so getting her outside all the time was nice, I thought. Plus all of her walks around sweeping examples of English countryside contrast so nicely with that moment that Caroline Bingley asks her to take a “refreshing” “turn about the [stuffy, tiny, drawing] room.” Although I’m sure part of their motivation was that they’d already spent lavishly on the little bits of Netherfield and Pemberley that we do see; they couldn’t afford more indoor scenes.