Carol Platt Liebau: Jane Austen Wouldn't Be Entirely Pleased

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Jane Austen Wouldn't Be Entirely Pleased

That's my conclusion after having slipped away this afternoon to see the new, Keira Knightley version of "Pride and Prejudice."

Yes, the movie did -- at times -- use chunks of dialogue from the book, which is a good thing (I'd like to meet the writer who really thinks s/he can improve on Jane Austen's dialogue). But with that one grudging bit of approbation, I had a couple of real criticisms of the movie.

First, the characters didn't look anything like the characters do in real life (those who have loved a particular book will understand what I mean by that). Keira Knightley wasn't, in my view, a convincing Elizabeth Bennett (let's set aside the fact that the book repeatedly notes that Elizabeth has beautiful grey eyes and Knightley's are brown). Jane Austen describes Elizabeth as "playful." Somehow, Knightley (in the style of many modern actresses) thinks this translates into acting "liberated," which, in the end, comes across as being unattractively snippy, "strong-minded" in the perjorative sense.

And Matthew MacFayden made a terrible Mr. Darcy -- and not just because he didn't look like the "real" Mr. Darcy (or like Laurence Olivier/Colin Firth for that matter). Rather than seeming "proud" or "reserved" (as Austen describes him), he just came across as bitter and depressed -- and then is transformed into some kind of Byronic hero, striding across a misty field in an open shirt, as though he'd somehow wandered in from a Bronte novel by mistake.

But my biggest criticism of the movie was this: The writers take liberties with the book in order to translate early 19th century behavior into what they doubtless consider to be more modern, "accessible" manners and mores. That's a legitimate choice (although one with which I disagree; I think most Jane Austen aficionados don't need to see Elizabeth Bennett shrieking "Just leave me alone!" to her family or hanging around barefoot kissing Mr. Darcy near the Pemberley fountains to understand her emotional state. In fact, sometimes there's great power in restraint -- as Austen's writing itself illustrates so superbly).

But having decided to change the characters' behavior to conform to modern mores, the moviemakers then take care to portray English country life with what they consider to be careful verisimilitude -- and thus, to modern eyes, it looks quite squalid. But the point is that it wasn't squalid for the times; the Bennetts were a "gentleman's" family, and they lived accordingly. Translated into modern terms, they'd be a comfortable, though not rich by any means, family. Given that's the case, why did the filmmakers take such care to make Longbourn appear run-down and primitive? It is, certainly, by modern standards -- but why take such care to make the surroundings look so derelict, when care was obviously taken to ensure that the behavior would seem modern in so many (sometimes jarring) ways?

For my money, the best movie made from a Jane Austen book -- hands down -- was Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility." It translated the (sometimes playful, sometimes somber) spirit of the book superbly into modern terms. And one was conscious of the primitive (by modern terms) surroundings in which the characters lived -- but one didn't encounter pigs wandering through the yard, as it were. At the very least, the characters in "Sense and Sensibility" looked clean; some of those in "Pride and Prejudice" seemed in need of a good bath and a hairbrush, pronto.


Blogger David said...

I almost always dislike performance/staging/dialog/directing choices that mar the feel of a period piece with ahistorical or anachronistic behaviors intended to make the story "accessible" to people who think last Thursday is ancient history.


One more thing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving: you've saved us from seeing a flick that would give me a rash...

Have a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Patrick O'Hannigan said...

I agree with you. Emma Thompson is a treasure.

7:33 AM  

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