Saturday, October 3, 2015

Austen City Limits

Film: Pride & Prejudice
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I genuinely like to give every movie I watch a chance. The best way to be surprised by something is not to go in with preconceived notions of the film in question even if that’s hard sometimes. In the case of Sense and Sensibility, I went in with suspicions and came out a believer. So when Pride & Prejudice, another Jane Austen romantic soap opera showed up in the mail, I was guardedly optimistic. It’s evident that I’m not the target demographic for a costume romance set in the decade or so before 1800, but I’ve been surprised plenty of times before. I had reservations, but I had hopes, too.

And you know what? The hopes paid off. Pride & Prejudice is a pretty good film. Oh, I didn’t rush out and find a copy of any of Jane Austen’s novels to start reading (although I did literally find a copy of the book in a restaurant a couple of hours after finishing the movie—true story), but I think I liked this as well as could be expected for someone who favors horror and science fiction over other genres. I still like Sense and Sensibility more. Part of that is the story itself and part of that is Ang Lee’s superior direction. But I was pleasantly surprised by this all the way through.

Like evidently everything Jane Austen wrote, Pride & Prejudice is going to be about a family of soon-to-be destitute young women looking desperately for love in a world where women needed a good marriage or a rich family to secure their future. In this case, the family in question is the Bennets. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Donald Sutherland and the always-wonderful Brenda Blethyn) live comfortably as landed gentry with their five daughters. These are Jane (Rosamund Pike), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), Catherine (Carey Mulligan), Lydia (Jena Malone), and Mary (Talulah Riley). However, the house will be inherited by someone else, which makes Mrs. Bennet anxious to marry her girls off before her husband dies. Elizabeth is our main concern here, with Jane and Lydia figuring in to lesser extent.

Coming to the neighborhood is wealthy bachelor Charles Bingley (Simon Woods). He arrives with his stuck-up sister Caroline (Kelly Reilly) and his friend, the extremely wealthy Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). Bingley and Jane immediately fall for each other while Elizabeth takes a quick dislike to Darcy. Things are complicated by a visit from Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), a clergyman who will eventually inherit the Bennet home and lands. He’s a pompous and dull little bastard who is rejected from marrying Jane (who hopes for a proposal from Bingley) and rejected by Elizabeth, who can’t stand him. Eventually, Collins marries Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte (Claudie Blakley).

Also tossed in the mix is George Wickham (Rupert Friend), a dashing young military man who has nothing good to say about Darcy. In fact, he blames Darcy for his current low state, which only further enrages Elizabeth. And, of course, Elizabeth and Darcy will be forced into each other’s company in multiple ways and at multiple times. When Darcy comes between Bingley and Jane, things worsen, and it becomes even more complicated when he declares his undying love for Elizabeth, who has vowed to hate him eternally.

Okay, but this is Jane Austen, so we know that everything is going to work out in the end. It’s really a question not of “if” but of “how.” And of course everything does work out satisfactorily, even with the presence of an icy Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a woman who heartily disapproves of Elizabeth Bennet.

Here’s the thing—even though the ultimate ending is never really in doubt here, getting to that ending is worth the trip. Pride & Prejudice is a lush and beautiful film and the costuming is exquisite all the way through (and was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Memoirs of a Geisha). There’s a great deal to like in the look of the film, and while the sisters look nothing alike, it all works well.

Keira Knightley was nominated for her role, and she’s good. Matthew Macfayden is her match on screen most of the time. He’s reserved through the entire film, but of course he’s supposed to be as someone who masks his own shyness and discomfort with a feigned superiority. For me, though, the three supporting roles played by Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn, and Judi Dench make the whole film. Judi Dench has only a couple of scenes, but she is as vicious and cruel as she normally is entertainingly sweet and fun. Donald Sutherland is laconic and long-suffering, and he handles the role perfectly. It’s Brenda Blethyn’s overly nervous and constantly worried Mrs. Bennet who makes the film for me. Every time she showed up, I smiled.

The problem I tend to have with romances from this era is that they always come across as so timid. People seem to deal with each other as if the other person will shatter if touched. I admit that I find that frustrating. I get that it’s the time, but so many problems would be solved by everyone dropping all of the social pretense and having a real conversation. But it’s also the era, so while it might bother me, I try not to get too upset by it.

Maybe I should read some Jane Austen. If nothing else, I’ll go into future Austen adaptations with an even more open mind. Who would’ve thought that?

Why to watch Pride & Prejudice: It’s surprisingly enjoyable.
Why not to watch: While the romance is there, it’s about as sexy as a burlap nightie.


  1. I can't stand this adaptation; I love the book so much (favourite novel of all time), and therefore see myriad faults in the film. I won't go into them here, but the main one for is that it is not nearly as funny as it should be. I love Austen for her humour and fine-tuned observations of human aburdities and follies. I found none of that here. Not much of her dialogue or her irony.

    If I try to divorce my love of the novel from the film, I know that I would not really like either. It is far too dewy-eyed for my liking; your 'as sexy as a burlap nightie' is spot-on. Yes it is beautiful, but I didn't feel it was in service of anything. Many at the time said that this was the 'real' 'rugged' Austen; oh please, this is so stylised it looks like a commerical!

    I would never stop anyone from reading any of Austen's books, but know that it is very different from this film. I do prefer the BBC series (both the 1995 and 1980 versions), but also like the 1940 film, which for all its inaccuracies, had the light comedic spirit of the novel.

    1. Having not read the source material, I have only the film to go on. It is pretty serious, and if Austen's work is comic, then it did miss the boat in that respect (and that might explain why it wasn't nominated for Adapted Screenplay). An adaptation of a beloved work that doesn't stay true to the spirit is never going to be a personal classic regardless of its critical acclaim.

      As a f'rinstance, a lot of people love the camp nature of Starship Troopers. I hate that movie because it deviates so much from the source material, and I love the source material. For the same reason, I'm both excited for and apprehensive of the proposed 2016 release of High Rise based on J.G. Ballard's novel. The book is a personal favorite, and it could very easily go wrong.

  2. I saw this when it first came out because of my Keira Knightley obsession and I loved it so much (It tied with Domino as my favorite movie of the year, so it was a great year for Keira Knightley) that I read the book and developed a Jane Austen obsession more all-consuming than my Kiera Knightley obsession ever was. (Austen wrote a short story Love and Freindship (it's spelled that way) that is a parody of Gothic novels and it's hilarious! You can read it in a half-hour or less.)

    The only other version of Pride and Prejudice I've seen in the 1940 version with Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, Maureen O'Sullivan and Edmund Gwenn. I love it because it is absolutely BONKERS! The acting styles are so different it feels like the actors all walked in from three different movie sets, stole come costumes from Gone with the Wind and started reading their lines from the Classics Comics Illustrated version of Pride and Prejudice.

    Edna May Oliver is Lady Catherine de Bourgh and she plays it under the impression that she is a Lewis Carroll character. And Melville Cooper is Mr. Collins in a performance that I can scarcely find words to describe. It's highly entertaining (your mileage may vary).

    I really have no problem when the movie deviates from the book IF the result is still entertaining. If I'm that desperate for a version that's that close to the book, I can just read the book again. (I'm not talking about those adaptations that really are just randomly horrible for no reason. For example, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is awful awful awful, not because it deviated from the book but because every single change they made was completely arbitrary and stupid.)

    1. I pretty much agree with your take on adaptations of literary works. If the change is one that makes for a good movie, I tend not to have a real issue with it. But there needs to be a good reason to make a change from the book to the movie. Arbitrary changes don't help and end up pissing off the fan base.

      Something like V for Vendetta, for instance, is a pretty good adaptation. It leaves a lot out, but a lot of the changes it makes end up streamlining the story being presented, which is necessary. So I didn't have any issues with the changes that were made there in the main. The Last Airbender, on the other hand, had wonderful source material to work with and made a bunch of stupid changes that added nothing and removed huge parts of the original story, changed character arcs, and pissed everyone off.

    2. I don't know anything about the source material for The Last Airbender but I thought it was awful.

    3. If you're okay with modern animation and something that is made at least partially for pre- and early teens, you could do a lot worse. It's really well written. Good characters, actual character growth, smart plot...

      It's the main reason the movie is so terrible. It had such a rich world to worth with and such great potential that ended up being pissed down Shyamalan's leg.

  3. I love this movie. When I first watched it I gave it 4.5 stars, but on a re-watch I actually bumped that up to 5. I agree with you that the supporting older generation really add weight to the film. I felt Sutherland's final scene with Knightley was fantastic.

    I have not read the book, but I have watched four versions of this story and this is clearly the best, in my opinion. (This was the second version I saw.) I found humor in the film, especially with Blethen's character. The scene where Bingley had this whole plan figured out on what he was going to say, then what she was going to say, etc. but then he's completely flummoxed by facing a room full of women made me laugh. Blethen's reaction when he comes back, like she'd trying to not startle a deer, is great, too.

    Knightley well deserved her nomination and for me her best scene was the one in the statue gallery. She stares at his bust with looks mixing love, loss, longing, sadness, lust, and resignation. It's a great scene that I went back and watched again after finishing the movie the first time.

    And I agree with Tony that her film Domino is very good, too. It's far overlooked.

    1. I gave it four stars on Letterboxd. For me, it's a notch below Sense and Sensibility.

      Agreed on the last scene between Knightley and Sutherland. I also like the scene where he supports her decision not to marry the minister. He's a fun character and gets a lot of good lines. It's better that those lines are spoken as only Sutherland could say them.

  4. I've read the book, seen this version and the BBC mini-series version. The BBC version is by far the best adaptation. It's longer, of course, but much more worth it than this version. And I didn't even care much for the book.

    1. I'm not sure how much Jane Austen I can handle without some time between versions.

  5. I recently watched and reviewed the 1940 version with Greer Garson and quite enjoyed it. Haven't yet seen this version. Minor note in your post: first line, second paragraph...did you mean to say "Pride & Prejudice is a pretty good film"...?

    1. I did. Thanks for the correction. I constantly get the two mixed up.

  6. I came at this from a different perspective, this genre is one of my favorites so I was disposed to liking it going in and I really did. I'd seen the BBC version with Colin Firth which was more in depth and Firth was great but I enjoyed this more. I've also seen the 40's version with Greer Garson as Elizabeth and despite my being a fan of hers she was all wrong, for one thing she was almost old enough to play Mrs. Bennett at the time so her casting as the supposedly 19 year old Lizzie was absurd. As far of the rest of that version goes it's beautifully appointed but pretty airless except for Edna May Oliver's completely different reading of Lady Catherine as a bemused softie behind her autocratic exterior.

    As you commented these films are all about repressed emotions so the casting and chemistry between the leads is key and I think that's where this version surpasses the others. Keira and Matthew MacFayden share a spark whenever they share a scene. A good example is in the scene where he confesses his love for her, wonderfully staged with the forced isolation in the gazebo because of the rain where being soaking wet also serves to disarm his defenses somewhat, and their heated exchange ALMOST leads to the breaking of decorum where you feel both of their desire to kiss but his pride and sense of reserve makes him pull back. The actors make it an electric moment despite the lack of pay-off. Sharing that connection throughout the film is what really makes their ultimate union so satisfying.

    A great deal of the credit for that goes to the actors of course but some belongs to Joe Wright who cast the whole film so well, though Rosamond Pike's still beauty being a perfect fit for the placid Jane to Tom Hollander's unctuous Mr. Collins. What the hell does Donald Sutherland have to do to get an Oscar nomination? I can't imagine a better Mr. Bennett and he should have gotten an nod without breaking a sweat yet once again he came up empty handed.

    I also agree that Sense & Sensibility is slightly stronger but both are fantastic films. My favorite of this type of movie though is Howards End, a darker film for sure and based on an E.M. Forster story but a similar vibe and setting. That's a masterpiece.

    1. The gazebo scene is a turning point in the film. It's the moment where, as you say, Darcy comes to admitting everything and it's where he's at his most vulnerable. It's a hell of a film for Keira Knightley, who would be thought of as Elizabeth Swann forever if she didn't demonstrate that she had some skill in front of the camera more than looking pretty and being willing to swoon for Orlando Bloom.

      As for Donald Sutherland...I have no idea. I can think of so many movies that I like where he's the best thing on the screen. Then again, neither Joseph Cotten nor Myrna Loy ever got a nomination, either. But Sutherland getting nominated for this feels like a slam dunk. He plays the role so well, he's so natural as someone who honestly loves his family and is simultaneously so frustrated by them that I can't imagine why he wasn't nominated.