Pride and Prejudice at Hoyts, Broadway

[Warning – really, really long, and with numerous spoilers.]

Well, of course, the big question is Why? The BBC production of Pride and Prejudice is only ten years old: while not perfect, it was in many ways excellent, and for vast numbers of people it’s the definitive film/TV version of Austen’s novel.

I wasn’t actually looking forward to the new film of Pride and Prejudice, as I’d heard a number of things I didn’t like the sound of, and I thought the trailer for it was awful. In fact, not unlike Elizabeth with Darcy, I was determined to dislike it. Well, although I didn’t have the complete turnaround of Elizabeth, I’m forced to admit I enjoyed it far more than I had anticipated.

This production was supposed to be more “realistic” than earlier versions – which I take to mean less “chocolate box” in look. Not a totally new idea: it’s also the approach that was taken with the 1995 Persuasion. Some of the ideas (such as showing the Bennet household as being a bit run-down) were quite nice, though at times I think they took it a bit far. I know the estate includes a farm, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be quite so close to the house. I also couldn’t make up my mind about whether or not I liked the crush of people, and very loud music, of the Meryton Assembly: it felt over the top, but, for all I know, it could have been spot-on accurate. My knowledge of How Things Worked at that time is gleaned almost exclusively from fiction, rather than from reading actual historical descriptions.

The other aspect of “realism” was mud and bad weather. Obviously, part of this is straight from the book, and an important plot point (Jane riding through the rain, and Elizabeth walking through the mud), so is hardly innovative. But I thought having Darcy’s first proposal outside, in a raging storm, was completely unnecessary, added nothing, and, frankly, pretty much spoiled the scene for me.

For all the vaunted “realism” there were numerous occasions of appalling historical insensitivity: as Sandra Hall said in today’s Sydney Morning Herald review, the director is “careless with the customs and conventions that were part of the fabric of Austen’s world”. Generally, this seems to have been done to make things less subtle, and more “accessible” to the 21st Century viewer (or, occasionally, for a cheap laugh), and so meant ignoring the rules of propriety. There was an article by Natasha Walter in The Guardian (reprinted in the Sun Herald of 9 October, but there doesn’t appear to be any online version available) which made the excellent point that:

Once you start to lose the fence of decorum around the characters’ desires, you run the risk of losing the tension of the novels, the tension between outward convention and inner emotion that gives them their energy.

There was, of course, one glaring example of this in the 1995 BBC production: the infamous lake scene. This kind-of, sort-of worked, in that I can believe that Darcy might go swimming in his own lake, on his own grounds, although I find it rather less believable that he would then casually stroll up to the house, given that it is open to visitors. However, it did work to heighten the embarrasment and sexual tension of the meeting with Elizabeth: very unsubtle, but most effective.

In the new film, however, there were far more breaches of decorum, ranging from minor technical inaccuracies (e.g. a footman announcing “Miss Bennet, Miss Bennet and Miss Bennet”, and Miss Bingley commenting on the mud on Elizabeth’s dress but not mentioning that her hair is down) to much more serious changes. In my opinion (remember: my knowledge comes from fiction rather than history books) some of the worst offences were:

  • Wickham and Elizabeth sitting under a tree together with, apparently, nobody else for miles around.
  • Darcy just walking through the door of the Collins’ house (after dark, and without even ringing the bell) to give Elizabeth his letter.
  • Elizabeth getting separated from the Gardiners and the housekeeper at Pemberley (and the Gardiners leaving without her!), and then listening through a door to Georgiana’s playing.
  • Lady Catherine arriving at the Bennets’ late at night, when everyone has gone to bed.
  • Darcy’s final proposal scene occurring because Elizabeth (unable to sleep) has gone out for an early morning walk Most Improperly Dressed, and bumped into Darcy – also unable to sleep, and also Improperly Dressed. (One also has to ask with this scene where they actually were – still within the Bennet property, or halfway between Longbourn and Netherfield? One or both of them had walked an awfully long way, particularly considering their casual attire!) And it would have been nice if Darcy could have gone home to change before seeing Mr Bennet.

My reactions to these errors varied. In some cases, I felt the change was completely unnecessary (e.g. the Lady Catherine scene and Darcy giving the letter) or could have been easily modified (e.g. in the Wickham scene by showing Kitty and Lydia nearby, but out of earshot). The actual performances in all of these scenes were very good, but I just couldn’t surrender to them because part of my brain was screaming out about how wrong the setting was.

Then there were scenes that were wrong, but there did at least seem to be a point to them. The best example of this is Pemberley. I thought Elizabeth listening at the door was very wrong (though an ongoing theme in the film!), but seeing Darcy and Georgiana when they think they are unobserved was a very effective way of shortcutting the scenes in the book that show the “human” side of Darcy. I also really loved the bit afterwards, when Elizabeth and Darcy are completely unable to say what they are feeling, so they fall back on the standard social niceties. Probably there would have been a way to present this in a more appropriate setting, but at least there was some reason for the change.

And then there was the scene that intellectually I loathed, but emotionally I responded to 100%: Darcy’s final proposal. It was like Austen dialogue (well, some Austen dialogue) in a Bronte setting. It was in every way wrong, it was unnecessary, it was unsubtle … but in spite of all this I was completely sucked in by it. I’m angry because I think the scene would have worked just as well in the correct setting (due to fine performances by both actors), but I would be lying if I said that the change spoiled it for me.

Ignoring anachronisms, and ignoring the fact that they chopped up the Austen dialogue something horrible, I thought most of the alterations made to the plot were reasonable compromises to get the film down to a sensible length. A fair amount of subtlety was lost, but that was pretty much bound to happen. One change I didn’t much like, though, was Elizabeth not telling Jane about Darcy’s proposal, but then almost telling her about how her feelings have changed. And I really didn’t like the whole family overhearing the full conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.

In terms of characters and performances, I hated Mr Bennet: he was far too old, and he seemed a bit slimy. In the book I think you’re meant to like him, even as you recognise that he isn’t a very good father, but something about Donald Sutherland’s performance just creeped me out. I thought Bingley was a bit too much of a dork, and even thicker than he is in the book (which is quite an achievement, really!), although I loved the longshot scene between him and Darcy just before he proposes to Jane.

Jane, on the other hand, was quite good; and Mary, Kitty and Lydia, though very minor parts, still had their moments. I thought Mrs Bennet was much better than in the 1995 BBC production, and Wickham was great – he was actually good looking (if a bit of an Orlando Bloom wannabe) but in a completely different style from Darcy, and he didn’t seem to have “I am a lying cad” tattooed on his forehead. It was quite believable that Elizabeth would fall for him, and it’s a pity his part was one of those largely sacrificed in the interest of getting through all of the plot. Georgiana was a completely different character from in the book, but given that she had about a minute of screen time, I think it was an acceptable and necessary change.

But, of course, the key roles are Elizabeth and Darcy – if they’re not right, then there’s just no point.

Keira Knightley was better than I’d expected, though she can’t top Jennifer Ehle. Her performance had a lot of the liveliness of Pirates of the Caribbean, though naturally it was much less over the top. But she was just far too pretty for the role. There is absolutely no way you would say Jane was the beauty of the family: at best, she and Elizabeth were equivalent. And I think maybe Keira Knightley was a bit too modern looking. She had a way of scrunching up her nose when she smiled that just didn’t look quite right (though I’m not sure why – people had the same facial muscles 200 years ago, and she only did it when she was with family members and close friends, not in Society). She also giggled rather a lot: sometimes this worked in showing Elizabeth’s personality (and youth!), but at times it jarred a bit. On the other hand, she certainly has “fine eyes”, and I think she moved better in the period dress than, for example, Frances O’Connor in Mansfield Park (who strode around as if she was more accustomed to wearing jeans).

Matthew MacFadyen’s performance was interesting. In At the Movies, David Stratton said he liked the vulnerability MacFadyen gave to Darcy. I can’t disagree that the vulnerability made him an appealing character, but I tend to think maybe it shouldn’t have been so visible in the early scenes – probably not until the first proposal, in fact. And with Keira Knightley being too beautiful for Elizabeth, I think the film really needed someone more physically striking as Darcy. Because what I think was lost was the sense of exclusivity about Darcy. At the start, he’s unpleasant, but he’s also special and out of reach, so ultimately there’s a real sense of how amazing it is that Elizabeth is the one woman to break through his reserve and humanise him. Of all Austen’s heroes, he’s probably the one most like a fairy tale prince. But in this film, you could see the humanity right from the start – he seemed awkward rather than aloof, depressed rather than haughty, and at times almost shy and uncertain rather than standoffish and confident. And because his looks didn’t make him stand out among the other men to the same extent that hers made her stand out among the other women, well, he just didn’t seem quite special enough.

This makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy his performance, but I really did. It’s just … it wasn’t Darcy as I see him. I think I would have absolutely loved the performance if I hadn’t read the book. As it was, I only mostly loved it.

I can’t really say whether I liked this production more or less than the BBC version. I can only say I liked it differently. And – unlike Mansfield Park and the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma – it’s one I probably will be adding to my DVD collection. But it will never replace the book!

P.S. 3 November

Having now re-watched most of the BBC version, I can say that I definitely like it more than the new film. It has a lot more of Austen’s dialogue, very well delivered. The new film is a very enjoyable romantic comedy, but it’s missing many of the fine touches that make the book special.

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