Whatever its shortcomings, of which there are a few, Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice may well prove to be what Much Ado About Nothing (1993)—which has a few shortcomings of its own—is for the 1990s: the most purely entertaining film of its decade. Witty, fiercely feminist, strangely moving and, above all, deliriously romantic, it is everything we want a film version of Jane Austen’s 1813 (and most popular) novel to be—and then some. Given our familiarity with the story, we may well wonder what special magic has imbued this version with such thrilling emotion and suspense. Like Kenneth Branagh’s ravishing romp from Shakespeare, it’s irresistible.
Like the novel, the film is about the disparity of motives for marriage in Georgian England: men of wealth must marry to polish their role in society and the class structure by removing their wealth, with its potential for causing social chaos, from the unpredictable open marital market, while women must marry to solidify their financial position in a society where women are legally prohibited from inheriting land or wealth. Of course, love is the great pair of shears that at any moment threatens to cut across the propriety of intricate—and, in Austen, vulnerable—marital arrangements. The aristocratic Darcy, against his better judgment (as when he first proposes to her he tries hard to explain), falls in love and eventually marries middle-class Elizabeth Bennet, whose mother—Brenda Blethyn is extraordinarily good in this unnerving role—is consumed with anxiety, having a household of daughters to marry off respectably. Love matters so in Pride & Prejudice because so many forces, individual, social and class, stand arrayed against it. People have such pride, such prejudice.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Wright’s version is its darkening complexion, which may strike us as better suited to Austen’s final novel, Persuasion. Indeed, the turbulent tenor of Wright’s film seems closer to that of Roger Michell’s film version of Persuasion (1995) than to other versions of Pride and Prejudice. Wright himself explains this unexpected treatment of the material in the commentary track of the DVD. Austen herself, apparently, thought her novel too lighthearted, giving Wright his cue for this deepened, darkened version of his. Be prepared, therefore, for Austen nudged in the direction of a Brontë. It ultimately scarcely matters because the film is mesmerizing—so successful, that is, at drawing us into its world, whatever that world may be. In a way, Austen scarcely matters; in his virtually nonstop DVD commentary Wright barely mentions her name.
There is no need to summarize the story. Everyone in the western world has read the book (there aren’t many books one can say that about!), nearly everyone has seen the BBC miniseries (Simon Langton, 1995), and some of us have glorious memories of Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier verbally sparring in (despite Aldous Huxley’s contribution to the script) the broadly Americanized Hollywood production (Robert Z. Leonard, 1940), and one of the funniest films in creation. Suffice it to say, in the new incarnation, as in all others, Elizabeth—Lizzie—misjudges Darcy, but stops battling her heart once his true, sterling nature is revealed to her. Darcy has already stopped battling his. These two were meant for each other.
Let us dispose of a serious problem about the film that becomes more apparent with each revisiting. The film leaves us with Lizzie and Darcy alone together as though they were the only two persons alive on the planet. I have been told that this ending was tacked on purely for U.S. consumption, although nothing in Wright’s voluminous commentary betrays this. In any case, the novel ends much better, with Austen continuing her dazzling depiction of the other characters and their now new relationships with the new couple in a familial or social framework. The film’s solitudinous close, more or less lifted from A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1986), strikes me as a mistake. It sort of hollows things out; and, frankly, a barefooted Mr. Darcy in his nightshirt—the implication is that he and Lizzie have just made love—processes embarrassingly.
Two other shortcomings need to be noted, one of them in a similar vein: Lizzie’s sisters are insufficiently delineated. We should have a role in making Lizzie (as indeed she should be) the star of the show; the film shouldn’t be so insistent on doing this for us. At least a couple of the five sisters come off as little more than set decoration. Moreover, one of the world’s clumsiest actors, Donald Sutherland, as Mr. Bennet is a dead weight dragging down every scene he is in. Like Robin Williams as the shrink in Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), Sutherland annoyingly—and, really, cheaply—underplays loudly, that is to say, makes a show of underplaying, exaggerating (and dawdling over) each selfconscious nuance. In short, he is dreadfully histrionic and, if we are to believe Wright, owes his casting to the fact that in some other role he resembled the director’s father! Certainly Sutherland’s performance captures nothing of the situation of a man who, long dominated by his wife in a household of females, finally speaks up for himself and his favorite daughter.
The film opens with a spectacular early morning moment in the country as Lizzie traverses a bridge to the family home, reading a book. Wright, whose commentary sometimes baffles, suggests that the book Lizzie is reading is the story she is about to live: Pride and Prejudice. Well, that book hasn’t been written yet, much less published, and, if what Wright says is true, it would rob Lizzie’s subsequent romantic concerns of all motive, all reality. What is Lizzie so anxious about if she knows that a happy ending awaits her? It is better to watch Wright’s splendid filmmaking than to heed this burst of postmodernist cleverness for the DVD. When Lizzie crosses the outside doorway, the camera slowly moves inside a darkened narrow hallway that finally admits light and family commotion. The shot is a knockout: an evocation of the past—our penetration of this past, as though the story that is about to unfold inhabits the regions of our own memory. And, in a way it does, because whether Lizzie is reading Pride and Prejudice, it is certainly the case that we have read it.
There are all sorts of details to the film that Wright himself points out in his commentary. I do not intend to cover such territory as the director himself covers. (Rent or buy the DVD, and listen for yourself.) Rather, I wish to address the film’s two amazing set-pieces—the principal reasons why, I believe, Wright won the London Critics Circle Film Award for his direction and was named best new director by the Boston Society of Film Critics. (The British Academy also honored Wright as an outstanding “newcomer.”) These are the ball, perhaps the single most brilliantly executed stretch of 2005 cinema, and Lizzie’s luminous wandering about in Darcy’s palatial mansion. Movie-making doesn’t get much more exciting than these two passages.
The ball begins with a flash of torch fire, signaling for us the erotic to-do’s that will overlap and criss-cross once we are indoors. A long outdoor tracking shot follows clergyman Collins (Tom Hollander, surprisingly complex in a part often played as buffoon—best supporting actor, London critics) as he approaches the ball, alive with anticipation of his dance with Elizabeth, whose parents, without her consent, have led him to believe will be his wife. As a rearward shot follows guests inside, the last of the Amberson balls from Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) comes to mind. Meanwhile, indoors, as Collins looks for Lizzie, Lizzie looks for Mr. Wickham, with whom she is currently smitten, as Mr. Darcy, potentially smitten with Lizzie, tentatively pursues her but quickly withdraws from this pursuit. As Lizzie nearly floats from grand room to grand room, searching for her Wickham, the spectacle recalls the greatest cinematic ball of them all, in Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963). What Wright is giving us here, and continues at the ball to give us in dances with overlapping and interrupted conversations, is the dance of romance: the hurtlings forward and retreats, boldness and cowardice; the aches and disappointments with which romance is fraught. The balance of the film will show that Lizzie most peculiarly is consistently bold and forthright in the expression of her romantic feelings (much as Lady Catherine de Bourg[h] is forthright in her expression of feelings relating to class), and as a result must cope with daunting consequences that imperil love when her feelings toward Darcy radically change—or, perhaps I should say, come out in the open, for even her to see. On the other hand, Darcy, his best friend, Charles Bingley, and Bingley’s beloved, Lizzie’s sister Jane, all are painfully shy to varying degrees in giving voice to their hearts. In a way, Lizzie’s boldness is the exception that proves the romantic rule; in another way, the example of Lizzie’s boldness, which gets her into such a tangle, suggests why others are so shy when it comes to admitting and declaring love. All this is scarcely less true today than in the very late eighteenth century, the time in which the action is set. Wright throughout is commenting on the persistent nature of our romantic hearts, in all its agitation, vulnerability and perplexity—a thread connecting past and present.
With her aunt and uncle, Lizzie explores Pemberly, Darcy’s mansion, on one of those occasions when it is open to the public. (All three assume that Darcy is away, in London.) The event occasions the film’s other great set-piece. The spectacular mural on one room’s high ceiling and the treasure trove of marble statues that turn another vast room into a veritable museum: these intoxicate Lizzie with the positive side of immense wealth, suggest a kinship between herself and Darcy in their shared love of art, and confront her, symbolically at least, with one hard wall after another on which, metaphorically speaking, to batter her proud head at how wrong she may have been about Darcy.* (The use of a series of dissolves in this passage is correlative to the profound upheaval in Lizzie’s opinion of Mr. Darcy.) In Darcy’s digs, she also gets her first glimpse of Georgiana, Darcy’s young sister, whom Wickham abandoned after enchanting her heart and running away with her. She was fifteen at the time and cannot be much older now; and suddenly Darcy appears, as if out of nowhere, and sweeps his adoring sister up in his arms, brother and guardian both. Just as suddenly Darcy sees Lizzie peering through the partially open door to the music room, where Georgiana had been playing piano. This leads to dinner the next night, with Lizzie and her aunt and uncle as Darcy’s guests. In a wonderful moment, Darcy’s eyes flash between Georgiana and Lizzie, and we realize, if we hadn’t gleaned this before, another thing that Darcy had had to overcome in order to pursue Lizzie: his keen sense of responsibility for Georgiana’s care, now intensified by guilt over having failed to protect her from Wickham. The boy must wonder: Am I even entitled to marriage and happiness? Wright and the magnificent actor who plays Darcy, strapping, sensitive Matthew Macfadyen, have so made all this (whether consciously or otherwise) the emotional crux of their interpretation of Darcy, we even begin to wonder to what extent the litany of other objections Darcy claims to have overcome in order to propose marriage to Elizabeth—those pertaining to family and class—really hid, even from himself, this other, more personal matter. On the other side, Lizzie plainly offers Darcy a lifeline, a way of keeping his devotion to his sister from becoming an obsession. (This is more Brontë than Austen!) All this constitutes a degree of psychological penetration you won’t find in the other filmed Prides and Prejudices—or most anywhere else. Riveting and electrifying, this strain of the material flows just beneath the surface, helping to propel this Pride & Prejudice into a class by itself.
There are others to praise. Deborah Moggach’s adaptation is excellent. (I learned from Wright’s commentary that Emma Thompson, uncredited, also contributed to the script.) Roman Oshin’s color cinematography is gorgeous; Dario Marianelli’s music, hauntingly lovely—perhaps 2005’s finest score. Keira Knightley is incandescent and ecstatically alert as Elizabeth; she overflows with determination and young life. Judi Dench astounds as Lady Catherine, Darcy’s imperious aunt; I couldn’t take my eyes off her eyes, which are full of aristocratic contemptuousness and plain acid. To what extent these may have replaced a mother’s heartache for her infirm daughter, I cannot say; but how dare Elizabeth Bennet think of marrying Darcy, when Lady Catherine has dreamed for so long of his marrying her daughter! Wright notes there are no villains in his film, but what else are Dench’s Lady Catherine and Rupert Friend’s graceful Wickham?
I don’t know what to make of the fact that (unless I missed it) we never learn Mr. Darcy’s first name. I suppose we can pretend it is whatever we want it to be—Rodney, perhaps, or Dennis. Or even Fitzwilliam.
* It is a mistake, I think, to show the bust of Mr. Darcy amongst the other, more gripping (and erotic) sculptures. For me, it’s an illusion-breaker, for when we see the likeness we don’t think “Darcy”; we think instead of the actor who is playing Darcy. It would have been better to keep the back of the bust towards the camera and show Lizzie looking at the front. It would have been better yet to omit the bust altogether, for even without its presence we would have gotten the point. After all, each time she looks at anything in that room, Lizzie is seeing Darcy.
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