The frequency with which Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for the screen has been noted in a number of reviews of the most recent version, from first-time director Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley. This is a bit misleading, though.
Yes, the small screen has produced a number of miniseries versions over the decades, the best and most popular of which is surely the 1995 BBC miniseries, directed by Simon Langton and starring Colin Firth as Darcy. And there have been loose cinematic updatings, like the Bollywood-style Bride & Prejudice and the Mormon-cinema Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy.
But we’ve gone 65 years without a feature film version — a retelling made for the big screen, to be watched in one sitting. (Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 film, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, is currently unavailable on home video; now would be an excellent time for a DVD release.) Even the 1990s Jane Austen revival, which gave us Ang Lee’s sublime Sense and Sensibility and Douglas McGrath’s lighthearted Emma, as well as the BBC “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries, produced no cinematic version of Austen’s best-loved novel.
Does this really matter? For Janeites, the BBC miniseries is the definitive version, as faithful and literate as any adaptation could hope to be. Firth owns the role of Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle is winsome as Elizabeth, with her pixie smile and thoughtful eyes. With nearly five hours to tell the story, Langton’s film does ample justice to Austen’s various plotlines and character arcs. Is there really any need for a shorter, less complete retelling?
Having watched Wright’s new film twice, back to back with the BBC miniseries, I can say would not want to have to choose between them, or give up either of them. The miniseries is far truer to the letter and the spirit of Austen — but Wright’s film, from a script by Deborah Moggach (reportedly given an uncredited polish by Emma Thompson, who also scripted Ang’s Sense and Sensibility), breathes new life into characters and conversations never before quite wholly free from the printed page.
This is no slight to the BBC miniseries; its glory is precisely its wonderfully literary quality. By contrast, the 2005 film is wonderfully non-literary. The BBC miniseries is peopled with living, breathing characters; the 2005 film is peopled with living breathing human beings. This is not to diminish the definitive achievement of the BBC miniseries, but to appreciate the freshness of a retelling that does something new.
Here is Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn), still exasperatingly excitable and embarrassingly indiscreet about her preoccupation to see her five daughters well married, but a recognizable human being rather than an outlandish stereotype. Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland), genteel but of modest means, still teases his wife mercilessly, but his mockery is less abrasive and passive-aggressive, more for his (and Lizzie’s) private amusement than out of any real cruelty. Neither Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), the Bennet girls’ courting cousin, nor his aristocratic patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourg (Judi Dench), is quite as ridiculous in this retelling. On the down side, Jane’s beloved Bingley (Simon Woods) is reduced to quirky cheerfulness.
Firth’s performance as Darcy in the BBC miniseries is indelible; reading the book, I picture him. Yet I am aware of Firth’s performance, like that of the BBC’s Mr. Wickham, Adrian Lukis, as a work of artifice. One might almost say that both actors spend the early hours of the miniseries not so much playing their characters as Elizabeth’s perception of their characters. Firth glowers relentlessly until it is time for Lizzy to see another side of him, while Lukis’s Wickham is so wholesomely forthright and earnest when we first meet him — he rivals Bingley, really — that when the scoundrel in him finally comes out (after Lizzie has learned the truth), it’s like he’s morphed into a different character.
In the 2005 film, on the other hand, Matthew Macfayden’s Darcy manages to incur Elizabeth’s displeasure and confirm her prejudices without ever becoming wholly unsympathetic, and his inner conflict in Lizzie’s presence, though suppressed, is tangible. Likewise, Rupert Friend’s Wickham, despite insufficient screen time, is charming and smooth, but not incapable of being the man of straw he is later confirmed to be. Perhaps this is partly a result of the shorter running time, which wouldn’t allow for the more complete and dramatic reversals of the BBC version in any case; but the resulting characterizations feel more natural and less arbitrary.
Then there is Keira Knightley’s exquisite rendition of Elizabeth, a performance beyond anything previous roles (Pirates of the Caribbean, Bend It Like Beckham) led me to expect. Knightley projects formidable intelligence and ready wit, her eyes ever ready to dance with laughter or flash with indignation.
The joys of the film extend beyond the characters to the world they inhabit, a world that feels persuasively lived-in rather than tastefully art-directed. The socioeconomic divide between the Bennets and the likes of Bingley and especially Darcy is plainly evident on the screen; characters dress and live practically, and in a manner consistent with their circumstances. And at balls they dance as if doing so were a pleasure rather than an exercise.
Wright’s film has been criticized for downplaying Austen’s comedy of manners in favor of unabashed romanticism and for updating attitudes and behavior. True, the film is more interested in moors than in mores (there has been talk of the film’s “Brontëfication” of Austen, which, if it is true, I am not convinced is ipso facto a bad thing). Knightley’s Lizzie is even freer from convention and social expectations than Austen’s, while the plight of Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas (excellent Claudie Blakley) has acquired a layer of feminist consciousness. Something of the complexity, depth, and historical context of Austen’s story has been lost.
In a word, Wright’s film is closer in spirit to McGrath’s Emma than to Ang’s Sense and Sensibility. But that’s still a very good thing. The characters’ joys, agonies, anxieties, frustrations, and mortifications are infectious. The tension between Elizabeth and Darcy is palpable. Above all, the film is fun to watch.
It’s certainly possible to quarrel with certain choices Moggach and Wright make, but the fact is that they manage to include a great deal of Austen’s plot and witty dialogue into the film’s two-hour running time. As rewarding as it is to enjoy the BBC’s more leisurely adaptation over several evenings, or perhaps a lazy weekend afternoon, it’s a pleasure to have a well-done cinematic version that offers such a vivid take on about as much of the whole of Pride and Prejudice, start to finish, as you can get in two hours. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait 65 years for the next worthy big-screen retelling.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.