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Thread: Joe Thomas: Pride and Prejudice (2005)

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    Joe Thomas: Pride and Prejudice (2005)

    It's fun but it's not Jane Austen

    "Pride and Prejudice (1940) -- This literate movie is a reasonably faithful transcription of Jane Austen's sparkling comedy of manners…..but when Jane Austen's characters are brought to life at M-G-M, all is changed -- broadened. Animated and bouncing, the movie is more Dickens than Austen…"

    That's Pauline Kael on the 1940 Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson version with "that great old dragon Edna May Oliver, as Lady Catherine."

    Kael's description of the 1940 movie works pretty well as a template for the new Keira Knightley-Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice. This time the "old dragon" is Judi Dench. We can't say Wright's version belongs to Darcy, because it hasn't got Olivier: Mathtew MacFayden is strong enough, but no Olivier. The movie belongs, as it should, to Elizabeth Bennett, and hence to the charming, pretty Keira Knightley. It's also, like the 1940 one, "changed -- broadened…animated and bouncing."

    "More Dickens than Austen" won't work, and the recent critic exaggerated a bit who said this new movie is Austen "Brontëfied," and so did the one who called it "a film that turns Jane Austen's nimble satire into a lumbering gothic romance." But they're all onto something -- something that's not there.

    Not quite Brontëfied or gothic, this new Pride and Prejudice has definitely been romanticized, and more than that it's had the essential elements of Jane Austen taken out. Austen's elaborate irony and rational thinking, and most of her beautiful and elegant sentences -- the essence of her books -- are all excised in favor of bouncy dancing and vivid color photography and nice-looking people -- very nice-looking ones, with nice period clothes, who more often than not overlap voices Altman style or just interrupt each other.

    And since we don't have to hear all that's said, the gaps are filled in with surging strings and powerful piano music, music no instrument in 1821 could have come close to matching. These movie ladies sit down to their little period pianofortes -- and out comes Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing a modern Steinway concert grand. True, Jane Austen lived at a time when a lot of the great classics were composed, but she lived in the country, far from a symphony orchestra, and it's unlikely she heard anything but a little Hayden and Mozart, maybe, and minor English composers and some Italian songs, all played on an instrument with a relatively very limited sound. And of course though the ladies may have been accomplished, they were not Jean-Yves Thibaudets.

    The looks are pumped up too, like the sound. The young men are all so handsome or cute the country balls come out looking like ads for Ralph Lauren or Abecrombie & Fitch. The economic levels are exaggerated, so you can't grasp the delicate details of income that are so important in Austen's novels. Lady Catherine's house is as grand as Buckingham Palace, and Darcy's is very nearly that grand. His estate as we see it here would easily have made him one of the half dozen richest men in England. His mansion has a huge sculpture gallery in it like a major room of the British Museum, and the other rooms are decorated with murals that look like the Vatican. At the other extreme, the Bennett girls' surroundings are taken from the Squire in Fielding's Tom Jones as represented in Tony Richardson's movie, with pigs coming into the house, and Mr. Bennett always, always, needing a shave.

    The irony -- there is one irony, though not in the movie -- is that you can't really make a movie of Jane Austen. Her books are easily visualized on film. Moviemakers can come up with the costumes and the sets. But her books aren't essentially visual. They're all about prose style, and the turns of phrase that make one think, sentences that flow gently and come down easy, catching you unawares so you may have to read them again, sentences that delineate the development of character through thought and experience with infinite clarity and subtlety. On screen, that development is there, but it's visual. It just happens. The camera just focuses on Ms. Knightley, thinking. But in Jane Austen it happens with words. Ultimately that isn't cinematic. So you can't make a Jane Austen movie without taking out the Jane Austen. Why do people do it, then? Well, people just like to make movies of her books, I guess -- and people like to watch them.

    Joe Wright's film is fun, but it isn't a masterpiece -- or Jane Austen. The directing largely isn't there, not in Jane Austen's terms: character development. Nobody really develops. Mathew MacFadyen is a young man who looks glum, and he looks that way all through. He doesn't really seem haughty and nasty at first, just like a man who can't dance. Keira Knightley is charming -- so is Simon Woods as Bingley, which is fine, because that's all he needs -- but she isn't sharp and she doesn't come through as a keen intelligence or a woman who is transformed. What Joe Wright's good at is getting a bouncy, sweaty bunch of good-looking people out on a dance floor in a stately home, and walking folks across pretty English landscapes. Walks in Jane Austen are about talk, or economics, like everything else. But in Joe Wright's film they're about sweeping strings and Chopin. Everybody is too nice, except the tiresome Mrs. Bennett -- though Brenda Blethyn is okay, not a caricature as some have said. My regret is that Donald Sutherland's smiley and weepy Mr. Bennett isn't drier and more ironic. Like everybody else in the movie, except Lady Catherine, he's been made likeable, at the expense of Jane Austen's wit.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-06-2005 at 04:26 AM.

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    I appreciate the warning, Chris, and the review, as usual. Your penchant for intepretation is second to no one on this site.

    Despite the "chick flick" label Austen has been given over the past decade, I enjoyed reading "Pride and Prejudice" years ago in college as a requirement for English Lit. Reading anything from that time, whether it be Dickens (the master) or even Conan Doyle, I came away impressed with the fluidity of language most people possessed. It's as if the English speaking world has lost the art of conversation. Whereas, Austen's book is filled with passages where characters are judged on their wit in conversation and dismissed if they do not present themselves well.

    The MGM film is quite laughable, and in no way resembles the novel at all. They made a romantic comedy, leaving out all the sordid details of the affair and other extra-marital implications Austen placed through out the novel regarding the younger Bennet girl. After seeing the extended theatrical trailer of the newest offering and reading your extensive review, I'll pass on the current bill of fare.

    However, in 1995, the BBC released a production of P&P which eventually came to the states about two years later, shown on A&E. The 300 minute extravaganza starred Colin Firth (Darcy) and Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth) with a tremendous supporting cast and superior production values. They were quite faithful to the period of the novel down to the smallest detail. The script called for long passages of dialogue taken directly from the book. For a detailed and in-depth adaptation to the Austen novel, I highly recommend this 2-disc DVD boxed set available as a Special Edition for around $30.

    I was especially pleased with the Catherine de Bourgh character. She is usually over played by strong actresses in other versions, in this is a lesson in the boredom of manners resulting in unbearable ennui, as Austen clearly pointed out in her novel. Whereas, Darcy, while wealthy, clearly learned his lesson proving someone of his class could change his ways, a lesson in the end for both classes. The ending of the novel is a far cry from "... and they lived happily ever after." For as we know, not everyone was so fortunate as Miss Bennet and Mr Darcy. The BBC version shows us this through the eyes of several other characters at the end, as did the novel, that life is a series of ongoing events, not simple triumphs that one can label, "The End."

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    Thanks for this excellent addition to my limited discussion of the new P&P movie. People do love it, and it hasn't done bad critically I think, but I'm sure you're absolutely right in saying that the longer Colin Firth rendition is far better -- and I trust your comment on the Olivier/Greer Garson 1940 version, which I only dimly remember. Thanks also for putting in a good word for Eng. Lit., and especially for the wit of Austen, and how her characters are judged by their ability to express themselves, and to think well. I don't know if we'll ever really get that in a film. I went through reject mode myself at first, rejecting Mansfield Park (the book) with a glib show-off putdown. (My teacher wrote on top of my paper: "Why don't you grow up and develop some literary taste. A+.") I was an English major and by the second required Jane Austen reading I had come full circle and was a big fan. Two of the greatest English novelists were women: Jane Austen and George Eliot. Filmmakers always want to make snappy renditions of the literary greats. And once in a while they make something that is original and really sings. But mostly they give us watered-down travelogues. A tour of the Jane Austen country. The real pleasure of the writing which you describe just ain't there.

    Critics -- and viewers too maybe -- are off base in rating this glitzy, slapdash Pride and Prejudice on a level with James Mangold's current Johnny Cash bio Walk the Line. The Cash film is more authentic and packs a greater emotional wallop.

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    So Many Ladies Cackling

    Pride & Prejudice
    Written by Deborah Moggach
    Directed by Joe Wright

    Writer’s Note: This review is best read aloud in a fake British accent or a real one if you happen to actually be British.

    I am quite the fool for a good period drama where a roomful of young women flutter about making high-pitched inaudible noises at the announcement of a new male prospect coming to town. Mothers trying desperately to marry off their daughters into good homes or even better, rich homes that will in turn provide the rest of the family with security and stature. Women who only speak in turn and do what they’re told. I jest. Besides, you don’t find these women in these movies any more. Modern period pieces are more concerned with disproving how proper people were. Less women sitting daintily and more women picking their noses.
    Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” was exactly what I wanted. It is both beautiful and engaging, a challenging while light-hearted romance … Everything I needed to help erase the memory of the Bollywood Musical remake “Bride & Prejudice” I painfully sat through earlier this year. This being yet another interpretation of a famous Jane Austen novel, I certainly needn’t rehash the story for you; I’m sure you know what to expect.

    Kiera Knightly plays Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter of five Bennet’s. She does not have any particular talents or ambitions that would differentiate her from her siblings. She is simply not interested in losing her head over whether or not she gets married. Miss Elizabeth would rather be alone than be with someone for convenience sake. That maturity, that knowledge that there are more important things in life gives her a peaceful glow that is only shaken when her independence is threatened by a marriage proposal that will undoubtedly end in a loveless existence. Of course, there is still some fear in her that she will never find another to love but she braves on. After all, she does have her pride.

    Matthew MacFadyen plays Mr. Darcy, good friend to Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) who is interested in marrying Miss Elizabeth’s older sister, Miss Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike). He broods and skulks but we are still intrigued as he has such beautiful eyes. These are eyes that suggest something more sensitive beneath this brutish façade. Mr. Darcy is well intentioned but has yet to master the art of human interaction as is quite clearly shown as he flexes his hand and fingers awkwardly after touching Miss Elizabeth’s hand. For her, it is a simple touch; for him however, a vulnerable revelation that he has likely never been loved nor allowed himself to love. Remaining safe in his tower above the commoners has shaped for him many a prejudice.

    Pride and Prejudice meet on the dance floor when Mr. Darcy unexpectedly asks Miss Elizabeth to dance. When the dance first begins, the conversation between the two is cold, guarded and expressed in the third person. It is aggressive, confrontational. They are both angry that the other’s existence remains with them when they are apart. As it continues though, they cannot deny their chemistry as the dance flows naturally until the end nears and there is no one left in the ballroom but these two. Fight all you like but you cannot will love away and that is a lesson that you must let go of both your prejudices and your pride before you can learn it.
    I have no idea what I'm doing but incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.
    - Woody Allen

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    I've read with great interest the comments and reviews posted. Knipp's literate point of view, which includes among its conclusions that "you can't really make a movie of Jane Austen", particularly stimulating. I'd love to share a bottle of wine and discuss how that statement would apply to other authors whose books I've actually read, and what these authors have in common. It would be most edifying because it would take me outside of my pure-cinema perspective.
    Chris himself calls the film "fun" but not a masterpiece or Jane Austen. I say: agree, agree, and I wouldn't know.

    It would seem to me that an adaptation of such book for theatrical exhibition would entail significant abridgment, with obvious consequences regarding subplots and such. It's perhaps unfair to compare certain aspects of it to a 5-hour miniseries.
    Wright's Pride and Prejudice seems to convincingly dramatize the central theme, the one implied by the book's title. I found the growth experienced by Darcy and Elizabeth and their coming-together very enjoyable to watch. I also found every aspect of the production to be quite competent, with the agile deployment of the camera and the resulting long takes to be especially accomplished. I liked Pride and Prejudice, but not as intensely as two mid-90s films based on Austen novels: Persuasion and Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility. Maybe to me it doesn't really matter if you can't make a movie of Jane Austen.

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    Getting a lot of responses here, so as usual my two cents.

    Every year we're bound to see some familiar faces. Summers produce sequels, updates of TV shows, there are always a few biopics, and the inevitable remake. Remakes have the toughest mountain to climb, because they have to answer the tricky question of "why do it again?" Most often this results in bad choices and some films that no one likes, only causing nostalgia for a previous version. This particular 4th quarter we have two high profile remakes, both of which have been made more than once already. King Kong already cost a fortune, and if it can be pulled off, then Peter Jackson might wind up being Hollywood's most powerful filmmaker, if not then you may very well see him back to basics and perhaps writing about drug dealing, pornographic puppets.

    The other, earlier remake is of Jane Austen's much filmed Pride and Prejudice. Most people would have figured that the 300 minute 1995 miniseries would have done it enough justice, but well who wants to sit through 5 hours? So we get another version, that this filmgoer for one was not excited about in the least. It got some good reviews, but that's to be expected, it has a great source material, and how hard is it to make the film at least partially enjoyable?

    Based on circumstances the film had to be seen, because it was the only convenient show remotely worth seeing. As it began I heard the familiar light opening music of so many faceless films, and of course the obligatory long tracking shot. That's how this film will be remembered in history, linking it with other 2005 films like Serenity, History of Violence, and the World, among probably many others. Interesting company this film keeps, but just as those films are all among the best pictures of the year, so is Pride and Prejudice. Within minutes I stop worrying about why another remake was made and gave into it.

    The cast is delightfully inspired. Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) is horribly irritating, but so was the mother in the 1940 version, and Blethyn wasn't quite as bad. The character is irritating though. The casting on one count wasn't particularly wise. Kiera Knightley, arguably the most beautiful woman in the world is supposed to be the 2nd prettiest sister? Hard to believe, and although Rosamund Pyke is very easy to look at, well Miss Knightley has got her beat.

    The rest of the sisters work well, Mary Bennet doesn't get a lot of screen time, and the actress cast for her, is a lot less attractive than Marsha Hunt who played her in 1940. Mary was always my favorite of the sisters, the one most in tune with art, and least interested in dancing and making an ass of herself, shame they couldn't have given her a little more light in this adaptation.

    Aside from that and Judi Dench's ridiculously "Bride of Frankenstein" hair, I can't say there was a fault in the film. It flowed with a remarkably light pace, and I could honestly believe the chemistry of Knightley and Mathew MacFayden. They easily come across as two people who don't want to admit to being in love with each other. There is a smoldering tension in their later scenes together, particularly during Mr. Darcy's first proposal. The whole film you just see that anticipation for them to kiss, that would make sex just seem insignificant. The film really remarkably has the feel of a classic MGM style costumed production. Something that Sense and Sensibility tried and failed to do in 1995.

    Above all else the film is funny. I was amazed at how many times I was able to laugh at it. The cast worked like siblings, particularly Jena Malone (Lydia) and Carey Mulligan (Kitty), those two seemed like a perfect two halves of the same whole. Likewise there was similar bonding felt between Knightley and Pyke, poor Mary again seems the outsider, hence the reason I personally prefer her.

    Donald Sutherland is dignified when he could have easily been baffoonish here. Had he been, the film would have taken on a too silly tone, and Blethyn was silly enough for everyone. He somehow brings a dignity and degree of respectability to the picture, even if he's way too damn old to be the father of these young women.

    The other thing I'd like to point out/praise is the script. It is written in the dialogue used in the original novel, but it is insanely easy to follow. Even the quick random comebacks spouted by Elizabeth are easily picked up despite being much too clever for normal people to expect. I only saw the film with 3 other people in the whole theater, but we all seemed to get it. Somehow it was like watching a foreign film but being able to follow everything without subtitles, as if Shakespeare suddenly became Stephen King. This deserves a great deal of accomodation, and I honestly am pulling for this picture to get a best adapted screenplay award, or at the very least a nomination, because they made this classic story work in a modern context without modernizing it in any way.

    I can't seem to stop going on, but unlike numerous other films beginning with long tracking shots, Pride and Prejudice continues with them. Some of the shots are extremely well laid out and enacted, particularly the Bingley's ball, and what tremendously fantastic sets!

    Grade A

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    the narrator's tactful ironies -- on the cutting room floor

    A review by Ellen Moody of a book dealing with film adaptations of Austen says this:
    I would argue that on the most fundamental level, Austen's novels are made up of stories which slowly and quietly emerge from the inner life and circumstances of a group of intimately- connected characters. Those public scenes she dramatizes most often focus the reader on the outward manifestations of some inward embarrassment, misinterpretation, or frustration from boredom. The narrator's tactful ironies which are not overdetermined are central to the effect of these books. [Emphasis mine-CK.] Now although all of the films made from Austen's novels can offer scenes of beautifully-patterned dancing, none escapes the obligatory still moments of characters simply sitting in a room together -- Austen's characters may be said to be conceived in terms of how much understanding they have of themselves and other characters while they sit around on chairs or walk side-by-side. Yet the staple ingredient of moving pictures is quick visual movement and mesmerizing music and sound, moments of which become memorable to the movie-goer when epitomized in a catchy snatch of dialogue (as in "I make him an offer he don't refuse"). Film-makers are also wary of the "over-voice": it feels too literary; the audience response depends on a quick conceptualization of the nuances of a line or lines. Deprived, then, of matter for what films do best and supplied with matter for what films often eschew, all film- makers of Austen's books have resorted to alluring costumes and lavish props.
    You couldn't put it much better than that. Certainly, while we find Jane Austen's world a visually attractive one, with its pretty costumes and inviting interiors and good looking young men and women, Jane Austen's books are actually some of the least cinematic I can think of. They are really all about thought and conversation. To appreciate them, you hardly need visualize a thing. A clue to this is the fact that the settings hardly change very much from book to book. We could have a thread on books into movies, but it's almost too huge a topic to embark on now.

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    While you may say that a film must work on its own, and that if it works on its own it's good whether it's true to the book it's adapted from or not, a film that completely misinterprets a book, when it happens to be one of the great novels of the English language, can't really be considered much of a cultural treasure. At worst, it's a travesty, at best, a triviality. I'm saying through that quote and what i said before that Jane Austen is particularly hard to adapt on film, but there have been better adaptations than this one. The fact that this one is entertaining doesn't make it a good adaptation, in fact in a way its failures as an adaptation subtract from its otherwise entertaining and well made nature. It's good that Donald Sutherland doesn't become a buffoon, but that doesn't make him Mr. Bennett.

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    Well I was looking at it as a film in and of itself. Honestly I didn't read the book, but I am familiar with the story, and I think that this films works well, and has literary qualities.

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    Yeah, right. "I didn't read the book, but I am familiar with the story" Great. You're the target audience. You qualify to watch and like this movie.

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    Is that a put down?

    Either way, I still stand by liking it.

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    Not a put down.

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    Judging from the overwhelming critical reaction (88% of film critics liked it) and its nomination for Best Comedy (? - it's certainly not a musical!) and Keira Knightley for Best performance in a comedy... While I still am partial to the mini-series, (mentioned in the Times review) I suppose I'll have to check it out....

    I'll let you know.

    FYI: Dench and Sutherland were nominated for other work.

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    You must be talking about the Golden Globes. I know it's the wrong thread but...a Woody Allen picture nominated for best film-drama!?

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    Good for him, it's been awhile

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