Pride & Prejudice—directed by Joe Wright and released in 2005—is a charming and perfectly amiable adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel of the same name. The things that make this version shine are the casting, specifically Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen’s performances as, arguably, the most beloved couple in literature.
As an adaptation, there are bound to be purists who protest this film, but I feel the screenplay was true to the essence of the novel. There are plot lines (Colonel Fitzwilliam’s attraction to Elizabeth; Wickham’s designs on Miss King), scenes (Sir Lucas’ pushing Elizabeth on Darcy; Darcy’s housekeeper professing his charms; Mr. Bennett ‘grounding’ Kitty), and entire characters (Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, Denny, and the Gardiner children) absent, but this is a necessary evil. Austen particularly writes about a very involved network of gossip and were the novel to be directly transferred to the screen, the audience’s bottoms would soon become sore—as in the case of the six episode BBC series. Overall, the film seems very fast paced as opposed to the book. The truncated conversation and quick movement throughout the film make it appear to happen within a few months rather than just over a year. Some examples of scenes that were cut short are: the opening argument between Mr. and Mrs. Bennett; an abbreviated stay at Netherfield while Jane is ill; Mr. Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth and his courtship of Charlotte; Darcy’s profession of love in the first proposal scene (for example, instead of “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” (Austen 181) , Macfadyen abruptly says, “I love you most ardently”); a less lengthy description of Wickham’s crimes; Lady Catherine’s confrontation with Elizabeth; and Darcy’s explanation of his transformation after Elizabeth’s initial rejection. I would argue that most of these choices were made in an attempt to not only speed up the action of the novel, but also make it more accessible to twenty-first century audiences by focusing more on the plot and tensions rather than the banter.
More specific—and significant—changes to the screenplay are lines that have been reassigned. One instance of this is the quibble between Caroline and Bingley in the novel where she whines that it would be “much more rational if conversation instead of dancing [was] made the order of the day” (52-53), while in the film it is Mary who makes this observation and Caroline herself who responds: “Indeed, but rather less like a ball.” In either instance, I believe that Caroline appears a tad nasty (though Bingley’s response in the novel is given jovially), so I can only assume that the writers’ decision was motivated by wanting to give Mary more lines—and subsequently highlight her more prominent sisters’ virtues. Elizabeth’s wit is one such virtue that is drawn attention to by reassigning the question directed at Mr. Collins about whether his compliments derive from “the impulse of the moment or previous study” from Mr. Bennett to her. His line informing his daughters that Wickham “would be a fool if he took anything less than ten thousand pounds” is also reassigned to Elizabeth, no doubt in order to give her a worldliness and knowledge that distinguishes her from her sisters. Another added line for Mary (here taken from Elizabeth) is her sullen, “What are men compared to rocks and mountains?”
Less drastic than reassigned lines are the ones that have been changed or even added. For instance, Mrs. Bennett’s lamentation after Lydia marries Wickham and leaves—“It’s so hard parting with one’s children”—was originally “one’s friends.” I believe this change was executed with the purpose of making Mrs. Bennett appear more motherly—and therefore more likable, or less insufferable, depending on your degree of contempt for her. An added line—and even scene (including the rehearsal beforehand with Darcy)—is Bingley’s proposal to Jane, which he prefaces with: “First, I must tell you that I have been the most unmitigated and comprehensive ass.” I personally thought this was a stroke of genius, giving life and humor to Bingley’s character which otherwise might have been neglected due to the cuts Jane’s stay at Netherfield received, as well as providing more of a spotlight on their relationship which I believe most readers have a fondness for (as opposed to solely focusing on Elizabeth and Darcy).
The cast does a marvelous job of portraying the family dynamic (tensions between sisters, affections between parents, etc.). Brenda Blethyn is huffy, busy, and over-bearing but in a sweet, motherly sort of way rather than in an obnoxious manner (e.g. Alison Steadman’s performance in the Colin Firth series). My favorite moment of hers is when she is walking through the Netherfield ball, content with Jane’s—and subsequently her—good fortune, and accidentally flings her pudding on a young man’s coat, apologizes, and precedes to scoop it off and continue to eat it. Donald Sutherland is aloof and always laughing at the silliness of his mistress and daughters, frequently seen doing various chores or indulging in hobbies (i.e. inspecting the livestock, reading, or adding to his insect collection). Lydia, Kitty, and Mary justify their father’s accusations of silliness. Mr. Bingley is jolly; Georgiana is—strangely—lively; Charlotte is sensible, but slightly more taken in by Lady Catherine’s ‘greatness’ than I imagined her; and her husband, Mr. Collins, is comically short—especially in comparison to Darcy. My favorite moment of Mr. Collins’ antics is when he makes the smallest bow and the slightest inclination of his head before his dance with Elizabeth in order to not draw attention to his height.
As for Elizabeth herself, Knightley brings the character to life by adding more to her humor than mere wit, but also a genuine cheer and good nature. She also portrays Elizabeth’s emotions more blatantly, which is true to Austen’s model of an unusually forthright young woman—in fact, she literally runs away from Mr. Collins’ proposal. Two of my favorite moments of Knightley’s performance are A) when she stares at the soup on her spoon, holding it suspended, knowing that Lady Catherine will interrupt her before she can bring it to her lips and B) when she gives a short bark of laughter upon seeing Pemberley for the first time and realizing that she could have been its mistress.
Elizabeth’s interactions with Darcy have genuine, realistic chemistry. Examples include: when Darcy helps her into the carriage, he flexes his hand as if to shake off the spark she induced; when he is seen pursuing her at the ball and then, thinking better of it, disengaging; his heartbreaking apology at the end of their quarrel over his proposal (“Forgive me madam for taking up so much of your time”) and the feeling that even though their words are heated, they are leaning in for a kiss; and the nervous, blushing awkwardness between the two when Darcy discovers her in his house. All of these interactions make their romance seem more plausible, rather than his affection—after his previous rigidness toward her—completely blindsiding the audience as well as Elizabeth (i.e. again, as in the Colin Firth series). As far as Austen’s famous novel is concerned, I do believe Macfadyen outstrips Firth.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Jane, played by Rosamund Pike, is somewhat shifted in the film as well. They giggle together under their bed covers, as young girls in love are wont to do. Pike exhibits real frustration when, upon being pressed by Elizabeth, she snaps, “Read it, I don’t mind” and hands her Caroline’s letter informing her that the Bingleys are off to London and uncertain to return. Pike also adds depth to Jane by layering her rebuffs about her indifference toward Charles with a hint of self-preservation, implying that her real desire is to save face rather than to convince herself that she does not love him. The film as a whole was splendidly cast with actors who give Austen’s dialogue conversational inflection and accompany it with natural body language.
The camera seems to ignore everything except the inner workings of various complex relations in an attempt to maintain an intimate knowledge of the maze-like social structure of Austen’s novel. The camera circles the people just as they circle and maneuver around each other, in particular during a dance scene in which Darcy and Elizabeth are partners and everyone else disappears (referring to two different shots of them dancing with the party and without to create a sense of connection—and chemistry!—between them). Another instance of circular camera motion would be in the “turn about the room” scene, at the end of which Caroline and Elizabeth cross and sit on parallel sides of Darcy—making their competition visual as well as subliminal. Other scenes that imply motion are when Elizabeth is brought up short—literally and figuratively—when Darcy asks her to dance and when the four daughters run out to meet Mr. Bennett’s carriage.
Many of the cut scenes in the film are presented in such a way that adds humor where there might otherwise be none. For instance, when the Netherfield butler announces “Mrs. Bennett, a Miss Bennett, a Miss Bennett, and a Miss Bennett,” to which Caroline replies “Oh, for heaven’s sake, are we to receive all the Bennetts in the country?”, the scene cuts to a shot of Mrs. Bennett, Kitty, Lydia, and Mary all sitting down at once, squished together on the Bingley’s fine couch. Other filler scenes include: the ladies of the house getting ready for the Netherfield ball; the family arguing and eating afterwards; Elizabeth hiding in an empty room during the ball after her confusing dance with Darcy; Netherfield being put ‘under wraps’; the passage of time during Elizabeth’s swing and when she stares into a mirror. All of these serve to enhance the film’s beauty, as well as add to the intricacies of life in the Regency era that might otherwise be lost.
Two scenes that are somewhat lost in the fray are A) when Elizabeth suffers the embarrassment of her family because of Mary’s performance, Mrs. Bennett’s bragging, Mr. Collins’ speech, and Mr. Bennett’s ineptitude and B) when the camera goes from window to window—though that aspect is indeed quite lovely and implies an “inner-workings” motif—and her parents discuss Bingley’s income, Mary reads to Kitty—who yawns in response—and Jane giggles with Elizabeth, giddy from Bingley’s proposal. What is lost from the former is the degree of Elizabeth’s embarrassment and Darcy’s awareness of it due to the unusually large crowd at Netherfield, while the latter lacks the crass nature of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett’s discussion by making it private. One addition on the part of Mary that I found quite thrilling was the longing glance she gives Mr. Collins after Elizabeth rejects him—fulfilling my long-held belief that she would have been perfectly suited for him and solved the family’s entail problem.
The foundation for the intricate acting and the well-adapted script is the setting and costuming that place this film firmly in Austen’s time. The costumes are not too elaborate and are actually rather plain and solid but still vibrant, leaving the focus on the chemistry within the ensemble. Most of the girls’ dresses are modest as opposed to some of the gravity-defying bustiers featured in other adaptations. The older characters, such as Mrs. Bennett, Mrs. Gardiner, and Lady Catherine, wear more Victorian styles than their younger counterparts. The more serious characters are often dressed in darker garments than the sillier, such as Mary, Lady Catherine, Elizabeth, and Darcy—the two former to stress their absurd severity and the two latter to stress their sensibility. This does not apply, however, to Jane and Bingley, who are often dressed in light colors to indicate their innocence. The cast’s hair is period style and luscious throughout—unlike that of Johnny Lee Miller’s in the 2009 adaptation of Austen’s Emma. Two of my favorite costuming choices are A) the ridiculous feather in Charlotte’s hair during their first visit to Rosings and B) the attractively disheveled appearance of Darcy during his second proposal.
The setting is not loud and detailed, but again gives focus to the play. This down to earth intimacy is achieved also through the unassuming pieces around them. Specifically, Longbourn seems more rustic and darkly furnished than its counterparts. For instance, Netherfield has lots of natural light and has very posh furnishings. Rosings is also elegant, but to the point of extravagance—much like its owner. Pemberley, however, straddles the line between elegance and extravagance quite nicely. It is very symmetrical, dead center in front of the pond with a tree-lined drive, and has a more worn—and therefore stately—appearance than Netherfield.
The setting and costuming lent itself to the devices of the players, the players themselves were superbly accessible, and the script that guided them was masterfully adapted for modern audiences. I have watched this film possibly nearing twenty times and there is a reason I never tire of it.
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 Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Signet Classics-New American Library, 2008. Print.