Part II: Pride and Prejudice, cont’d

I finally finished watching P&P05.  It’s been on television recently, but I can’t stand to watch it with all the commercials so I have not seen it in its entirety in more than 2 years.  I saw it at least 9 times in the theater and enjoyed it very much.

This film has been the subject of controversy among FoJs since its UK release in the autumn of 2005.  Some declared that P&P95 was the “definitive” version and no other version should ever be attempted.  Others were not happy because of various casting choices (including the presence of a Canadian and an American as members of the Bennet family).  Etc.  But I went into it with an open mind when it first came out, and went into it with an open mind this time.

From the beginning, we see that these Bennets have a considerably happier marriage than do Austen’s Bennets, and this is not challenged at all during the film.  Obviously, that is a strike against this adaptation, because Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are the proverbial “chalk and cheese” type of couple.  That said, I do think that Brenda Blethyn is a very good Mrs. Bennet.  We see the remnants of the young Miss Gardiner who so captivated Mr. Bennet. We see her anxious about her daughters’ future. She’s still a silly, ignorant woman, but she is not shrill or shrieky. Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet irks me (and the fact that he is a Canadian who cannot do an English accent to save his life has very little to do with my opinion of him in the role). As I’ve said before in other situations, an actor can only do what he’s been told to do and, in this case, what Mr. Sutherland was told to do does not work in an adaptation of P&P. Austen’s Mr. Bennet is not in love with his wife. Austen’s Mr. Bennet is not a caring, thoughtful parent. Austen’s Mr. Bennet is not a man who is terribly empathetic.  Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet is all of the above.

This adaptation does, however, have the single best Meryton Assembly I have ever seen. Here, it is blatantly obvious just why Darcy and Miss Bingley think they are above their company. This is a gathering of the local townspeople rather than a more formal occasion. Anyone who can afford a ticket can go, from the butcher to the mayor to the biggest landowner in the area. As Miss Bingley puts it, “we are a long way from Grosvenor Square…”  You are correct, Caroline. Other Meryton Assemblies that we’ve seen are far more formal affairs, and Bingley’s party is not subjected to quite so much riff raff as they are here. The music is wonderful, and the dancers all look as if they are having the time of their lives. It really is wonderful. Speaking of the Assembly, I know the “one poor sonnet will kill it forever” comment does not belong in this scene, but I’m very glad they included it in the movie. The “definitive” P&P does not have it (but P&P80 does).

One scene in particular that bothers self-described purists is the exchange between Lizzy (this film calls her “Lizzie,” but that’s not how she is referred to in the book) and Wickham where Wickham says that old Mr. Darcy “liked me better.”  Well, something very similar to that exchange actually is in the book.  From chapter 16:

A thorough, determined dislike of me — a dislike which I cannot but attribute in some measure to jealousy. Had the late Mr. Darcy liked me less, his son might have borne with me better; but his father’s uncommon attachment to me, irritated him I believe very early in life. He had not a temper to bear the sort of competition in which we stood — the sort of preference which was often given me.

No, not in exactly the same words, but yes, this Wickham is saying the same exact thing as the book’s Wickham.

I happened to like Keira Knightley as Elizabeth in this version. We see her maturation from girl to woman. We see her distancing herself from her sisters, even Jane. We see her coming into her own as a person. I love the scene where she digests Darcy’s letter. We see her thinking and processing its (truncated) details and realizing that even she can be wrong. It’s the same kind of “lightbulb moment” that Austen’s Elizabeth has and that Elizabeth Garvie’s Elizabeth has, but that Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth does not. Knightley shows us some of the girlish, fun-loving side of Elizabeth Bennet without being another Lydia.

Matthew Macfadyen has beautiful eyes and a very sexy voice, and he’s also a wonderful actor. Unfortunately, however, even though he and Keira Knightley are well matched, I don’t love him as Darcy. He brings out more of the character’s vulnerability than other men in the role have, but he also plays the character as too shy, which does not sit well with me. We know from interviews that Colin Firth also thought Darcy was shy and attempted to play him that way, but he must have done something wrong, because I never once thought that Firth’s Darcy was shy.

The Wickham/Lydia part of the plot was handled very clumsily, in my opinion. Rupert Friend’s Wickham is not handsome and charming — he is androgynous and petulant — and I never took him seriously as an experienced seducer of young girls. The actors who played the Gardiners looked like farmers instead of people of fashion from London. Georgiana Darcy was not a shy, quiet girl — this is a girl who could easily have been a cheerleader or homecoming queen. She’s outgoing and friendly.

Simon Woods’ Bingley did not impress me in the slightest. I simply cannot imagine Austen’s Darcy calling this man his best friend.  It boggles the mind. For the most part, I liked Claudie Blakeley as Charlotte, but once she married, I thought she played Charlotte as more in awe of Lady Catherine than Austen’s Charlotte (or, for that matter, the other Charlottes we’ve discussed thus far) was. Tom Hollander does not match Austen’s physical description of Mr. Collins, but he has the pompousness and self-absorption down pat. Kelly Reilly’s Miss Bingley is an excellent ice queen.  Even at the Netherfield Ball,when she’s dancing with Darcy, she’s very cool and very aloof and, frankly, not very graceful.  She looks as if she’s doing it simply because she has to, not because she wants to.  She can show off her ability to remember the steps, but she doesn’t seem to feel the music while she dances.  I really like the scene at the Ball where Darcy and Elizabeth dance alone — I know it wasn’t their original intent, but it works very nicely.  And I gather that newer versions of the movie have cleaned this up, but I still saw Keira’s earpiece after the dance.

I adored the sculpture gallery and how it replaced the portrait gallery in the book.  The pristine whiteness of the room and the marble was breathtaking.  Many of these pieces were in the house when Austen was alive, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that she saw some of these pieces.  Seeing Elizabeth staring at the bust of Darcy, while Mrs. Reynolds (known to fans of Upstairs Downstairs as Hazel Bellamy) talks to the Gardiners in the background, was very moving.  I really, really love this scene.

My friend “K2L” has told me that her mother-in-law kept track of how many lines from the book are actually in this adaptation, and her work paid off — this adaptation is closer to the book than Emma Thompson’s S&S95 is to Austen’s S&S. And this is, frankly, rather ironic because Emma Thompson is thanked in this adaptation and also reportedly came up with the lines of dialogue that anger purists the most. Life does work in mysterious ways, does it not?

All in all, I like this adaptation very much. It does not pretend to be definitive nor “the book come to life,” and its fans don’t claim that it is either. It is, however, beautiful to behold and tells the story quite nicely in a 2-hour time frame. I highly recommend it to fans with an open mind.