Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Janespotting: Pride and Prejudice (2005 film)

Here, to get you in the mood, play this and listen while you're reading (no need to watch it, just listen):

Before leaving P&P variations behind for a while, I thought I would refresh myself with the most recent film adaptation of Austen's classic. This version came out in 2005 and earned Keira Knightley an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. It also has Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as Elizabeth's parents, and the inestimable Dame Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. It has to condense much of the novel in order to fit into the feature-film length of just over two hours; strangely enough, it is the first feature film to attempt a faithful adaptation of the book. (I can't consider the 1940 version as "faithful," and all the other versions have been television productions.)

I know many purists despise this version of P&P: not only have many characters and scenes been cut out, but director Joe Wright opted to emphasize the "country" part of the Bennets' country home, with livestock wandering through the mud in the yard of this gentleman's estate. I saw this in the theater with a good friend who is also an Austenophile, and she fell asleep halfway through. And of course, many fans add, how could anyone hope to match Colin Firth's definitive portrayal of Mr. Darcy?

Well, I'm not hung up on purity, and Matthew Macfadyen does a creditable job as Mr. Darcy in the two hours given to the story. He's handsome and brooding, of course, and while he doesn't get much time to explore the depths of the character, you can see the pain in his eyes after Elizabeth rejects him. And yes, many of the other characters have been relegated to the background—we don't get to see Mr. Darcy's cutting rejoinders to Caroline Bingley's snarky remarks—but as a result the film is tightly focused on Darcy and especially Elizabeth. It's Keira Knightley's film; this was her first time headlining a movie, although in the two years leading up to P&P she had appeared in films with a total worldwide box office of over $1 billion.

Now, you might think it risky to rest a major motion picture on the shoulders of a 20-year-old actress, but Knightley (good Austenish name!) was actually the first actress to actually be the same age as the character. The star of the 1995 miniseries, Jennifer Ehle, was 26, while the lead of the 1940 film, Greer Garson, was actually 36! Both these actresses make Lizzy a confident, witty, mature woman who is an equal foil to Darcy. While this makes for a very appealing Lizzy, it doesn't cover all aspects of the character. After reading Mr. Darcy's letter and learning the truth of Wickham's past, Elizabeth has this reaction: "She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd"; she then says, "Till this moment I never knew myself" (Vol. II, Chap. 13).

This is what I find fascinating about Knightley's performance in the role: the sense that Elizabeth has just as much of an emotional journey to make as Darcy does. In the book, we see Darcy's change through his behavior, but Elizabeth's changes are more subtle, affecting her sense of self and her attitude toward Darcy. These aren't the easiest things to show on film, but through closeups on Knightley's expressive face, we see this side of Elizabeth: with her wit and self-confidence undermined by the discovery that she has more to learn about the world, she reconsiders what she knows about herself and her feelings about love. It makes for a very big-R Romantic movie.

So I enjoyed this version of Austen's classic; it may not be as complex and detailed as the miniseries, but it has its own unique angle. (I found Blethyn & Sutherland's interpretation of the Bennets' marriage interesting as well, going beyond caricature.) In addition, it has some interesting direction with really wonderful cinematography. (I know, a sunrise proposal isn't proper, but it's so beautiful!) Adding to the atmosphere is the wonderful, Oscar-nominated score by Dario Marianelli (who would win the Oscar for his next film with Knightley and director Joe Wright, 2008's Atonement). If you played the embedded video at the top of this entry, you've heard the recurring theme on piano that is just lovely; in other parts it is rendered by a chamber orchestra, sounding entirely appropriate to the era. All in all, I've enjoyed watching (and rewatching) this version of P&P. But next week (finally!): I move on to Sense and Sensibility.


  1. Jennifer Ehle was 24 when her version of P&P was filmed in 1994. (broadcast in 1995)

  2. Ah, I miscalculated; late December birthday means Ehle was 24 during filming. Still, I think there's a world of difference between 19/20 and 24, as far as emotional maturity, even if the actual age gap isn't very large. In any case, I think my point regarding the approach to Lizzy's character still holds true.

  3. I ♥ the score to P&P. It's constantly playing on my iPod.

    I like your assessment of Knightley's portrayal. I didn't like her as Lizzy the first time I watched the film, but she grows on me with each repeated viewing. I never realized she was actually Lizzy's age when filming. That's perfect!

  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, littleyuzu! I need to download the score myself.