Rightwing Film Geek

A story this good is hard to ruin

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Joe Wright, Britain, 2005, 7

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a film adaptation.”
Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice” (sorta)

Why?

Why do we need another adaptation of another Jane Austen novel? Particularly since this version of “Pride and Prejudice” looked so pedestrian and rote from the trailer and casting – Keira Knightley has never set my world on fire; and I love Judi Dench as much as the next guy, but must British casting directors be so unimaginative with the grande dame roles. The Internet Movie Database gives nine versions with this exact title (thus excluding the modernized “Bridget Jones Diary”), and with just a decade since the definitive 5-hour BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Darcy, this film had “unnecessary” stamped all over it.

But really, that’s like asking “why marry” to Austen’s famous opening line about men in possession of a good fortune. After seeing this latest “Pride and Prejudice,” I was asking “why not?” After all, it’s only the greatest novel ever written in English and only the work that has pretty much defined the modern romantic comedy template for nearly 200 years. There’s nothing despicable about wanting to see our favorite novels dramatized and seeing what real-life actors and directors can do with (or against) the images in your mind. While driving, I often listen to an unabridged Books on Tape of Irene Sutcliffe reading “Pride and Prejudice.” Heck, I even liked the semi-Bollywood Aishwarya Rai film “Bride and Prejudice” from earlier this year. As for the novel itself, well, however little known its feelings or views may be, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adaptation teams that it is considered as their rightful property.

Austen wrote such a corker of a story, so rich on so many levels, that as long as you’re reasonably faithful, you almost can’t completely screw it up – there’ll at least be a decent plot as skeleton for whatever skin and muscle the film-makers choose to wrap around it. And it is another truth not-so-universally acknowledged that our memories of the original and other adaptations fool us by “filling in” gaps and firming up thin moments.

As for the story, it’s mostly all there, though obviously some things are minimized – we don’t get much of a sense of the three younger girls until Lydia follows her heart and the results become central to the plot. For about 30 minutes, in fact, “Pride and Prejudice” quickly slashes through the compressed plot events – Jane’s rain-swept trip to Netherfield is hardly seen and the whole illness episode takes about a minute. But the choices made are generally smart. For example, Austen’s immortal, yet completely uncinematic, two opening paragraphs are entirely skipped in favor of a lengthy track through the Bennet home, establishing their material circumstances (think the start of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”). The book’s first dialogue – Mrs. Bennet eagerly telling her husband about the arrival of Bingley – is briefly overheard and swiftly out the side of the camera’s eye as it wanders through the house.

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ppsisters.jpgThis “Pride and Prejudice” is filled with this sort of shot – it’s easily the most cinematically flashy of the decade-long string of Austen adaptations. The camera is constantly moving, catching things – like Mary’s bad piano playing – on the fly. The film’s high point (I thought the same of the 1995 miniseries) is probably the dance between Darcy and Elizabeth, which becomes a serious sideways-accusatory conversation. Here, the camera twirls along with the pair, as if we’re dancing too and eavesdropping as Darcy and Elizabeth become more absorbed (and not in a good way) in each other and each other’s opinion. Director Joe Wright literally erases the other dancers – first in sound and finally in images until it’s just the two of them “quarreling” (to the extent that people quarreled publicly in Regency England) all alone and then taking their final positions. In visual look, this film’s scruffy gentility (and that’s the Bennets’ status as “poor gentry”) most resembles the Austen world of “Persuasion.” There’s more rain and dirt here than we often get in British period adaptations. The Bennets’ home is kinda drab (we see the shabby cracks in the walls and hear the squeaks in the floorboards) and not too far removed from people who worked the land – chickens in the kitchen, pigs in the backyard, and all that jazz.

There’s just no way around some of the ways “Pride and Prejudice” is unfilmable. It’s not just the felicity of Austen’s language – at least some dialogue is transferable (though much of the dialogue in the novel is irrelevant, if often funny or relevant via its irrelevance). It’s that Austen simply *told* most of the plot, often by describing people’s interior states, particularly the most important characters’ states. Austen’s characters also often wrote letters to one another, which are simply reproduced. Those are two techniques cinema resists, even the frequent attempts to reproduce the letter content as conversation. And inevitably, one will have disagreements with the characterizations as presented. Jane Bennet here is not as obviously good-souled as I see her; Bingley’s a bit stupider; I see Mr. Collins a bit more silly and flamboyantly self-absorbed than Tom Hollander’s loser with a constipated-face act; and Donald Sutherland just doesn’t fit the avuncular quality of Mr. Bennet’s weariness.

ppblethyn.jpgOther actors do much better, often simply because the casting is right. As Mrs. Bennet, Brenda Blethyn can play this kind of talkative “silly old biddy” role in her sleep. Jena Malone only gets a couple of scenes as Lydia, but she’s surprisingly effective as a pre-modern modern girl. Dench is just a compulsive addiction. I may groan at seeing her typecast (she’s Lady Catherine de Bourg, for those of you in Rio Linda). But those lips, those eyes – even those wrinkles – she just is regal imperiousness.

I had heard nothing but bad things about Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy, and his performance is definitely at the stiff end. But somehow that seemed right for Darcy’s proud diffidence, as if he can’t be bothered to be here. And MacFadyen does loosen up a bit toward the end – as he should. As for Knightley, she at least is the right age to play Elizabeth Bennet (for a camp classic, see 35-year-old Greer Garson in the 1940 MGM version). Knightley’s a bit gigglier than Jennifer Ehle was in 1995, but her Elizabeth is a woman so intelligent and such an observer that the outside world are mere characters in her own private joke. In other words, she personifies Austen’s ironic sense of humor, if a bit bluntly. But it also plays well against MacFadyen’s muffled Darcy. As if each performance, like a real marriage, needs the other to play off it well.

While the 1995 miniseries has entered the vernacular as the “Colin Firth” version, this one will be known as the “Keira Knightley” because it’s her joyful performance, and her joyful qualities as a person, that centers and defines the film. Which is why adaptations also, like marriages, need contrasts to play off each other.

So … that’s why.
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Originally published at The Fact Is.

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December 8, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Last Days of Jane Austen

According to a recent edition of Variety, Whit Stillman has his next project, cited here on this Stillman fan page (thanks, Mark). And it sounds like a doozy. Or a horrible idea.Variety sez:

“Five years after his last movie, ‘The Last Days of Disco,’ American writer-director Whit Stillman is developing a Jane Austen project with Brit producer Stephen Evans. Paris-based Stillman, who first found fame with his Austen-esque comedies of preppy manners ‘Metropolitan’ and ‘Barcelona,’ is adapting two unfinished Austen novels, ‘The Watsons’ and ‘Sanditon,’ into a single script, titled ‘Winchester Races.’
His script merges the character of Emma Watson, a girl returning to her family after a long absence being brought up by her aunt, and that of Charlotte Hayward from ‘Sanditon,’ an attractive country girl taken up by a family of comically optimistic real-estate speculators.”

I’m not sure this is a great idea, trying to combine two at-best rough drafts, but if it’s doable at all, Stillman is the man to do it. The three films he has made so far (METROPOLITAN in 1990; BARCELONA in 1994; and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO in 1998) are Austenian parables of character, in which people get the mates their virtue deserves, in which nobody is beyond redemption but not-messing-up-in-the-first-place is decidedly better. But even DISCO’s tart-tongued Charlotte and Des find each other. Indeed, Austen herself (“Mansfield Park” in particular) is even explicitly brought up in METROPOLITAN, partly to mock Tom for only reading criticism — in order to get both the writer and the critic, he says — but also to give Audrey a chance to recite the Greatest Conservative Line In a 90s Movie: “Wouldn’t we look just as ridiculous to Jane Austen.”

disco.jpgStillman’s romantic sensibility also matches Austen’s, and both are zeitgeist-buckers. In both a Stillman movie and an Austen novel, and rarely among movie and TV protagonists today, being “a free spirit,” “following your heart” or “being true to your self” are often shown not to be such good ideas. Some things matter more than gratifying your desires, but neither Stillman nor Austen are ever explicitly moralistic, instead seeing the heart as dignified when the head reins it in. Not for them is the authenticity or daring of Lydia and Mr. Wickham, or of Alice and Tom (“Scrooge McDuck is really sexy”). Fanny Price in “Mansfield Park” does explicitly reject a marriage based on property alone, but does not run off with just anyone. As a result, she marries both reasonably well and reasonably happily. When Tom returns after learning of Alice having gotten VD from their one-night stand, the look on *her* face and *her* body language at his withering “is there no limit?” says everything about Alice’s shame, though Stillman doesn’t linger on it.

Stillman’s films are generally very strongly liked by the conservatives who know of them. I have watched LAST DAYS OF DISCO about six or seven times in the past few years, often with conservative friends who don’t watch very many movies, convinced Hollywoof is a den of pagan sin (which it often is, but there are exceptions, and part of why this site exists is to point them out). In those several viewings, the film has grown in my mind and I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that DISCO the most subtly conservative great film of recent years and the best film by Stillman, who was formerly on the masthead of The American Spectator. As James Bowman points out in the best review of the film I’ve read, DISCO (like Stillman’s other movies) is about the wreckage of the 60s sexual revolution without ever having that matter be the surface subject matter or ever descending into a reverse-PLEASANTVILLE polemic. And Stillman’s films are conservative in the sense that they’re about the next generation’s having to deal with the end of the rules of the game, the lack of expectations and romantic rites (presented as a godsend at the beginning by the amoral Charlotte). Like the great French director Eric Rohmer, Stillman’s films have secular and apolitical surfaces covering conservative and religious bones. None of the characters in DISCO “find God” exactly (that would be false to Stillman’s style and unconservative to boot), but there are subtle religious undertones and glancing references that point the right path to those who can see it.

I love Stillman’s films so much [in order: DISCO, METROPOLITAN, and BARCELONA — though all three are in my Top 10s for their respective years] that I have been disappointed by … ahem … his recent inactivity. But if this is the right project, the one that he’s waiting to get his hands on, I guess it’s all for the best. True love waits and all that.

January 13, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments