Sunday, September 18, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

When I was a wee lad in Boston, WGBH (Channel 2), the local PBS affiliate, ran Pride and Prejudice as a miniseries on Masterpiece Theater. I remember being intrigued by the costume drama, by the insufferable Mr. Darcy, and the strange twists that bring him together with Elizabeth Bennet. In the mid-90s, the BBC did another version, a 4-hour movie broadcast in two 2-hour parts, starring Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth.

Now there's a major motion picture with Keira Knightley (Bend it Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean) starring as Elizabeth. She has quite a task ahead of her, considering how widely loved the BBC version is.

Does she pull it off?

I just saw the film. I enjoyed it a lot, but felt that, in compressing the story into a 2 1/2 hour film, everything felt a bit rushed. Overall, I prefer the pacing of the BBC version.

The cast was very good, but again, they had a high standard to meet, if they didn't want the film to be viewed as a waste of time. Knightley seems much more like a teenaged girl than Ehle did, who seems more like a young woman. Also, one is more impressed with Ehle's ability to speak Jane Austen dialogue, esp. dialogue that is intended to express the great intelligence of the speaker. I say this not to disparage Miss Knightley, but I still will view Ehle as the definitive performance. Her Elizabeth seems more secure, in spite of the lower station, and less hurt by Darcy's initial disapproval. Indeed, she manages to express middle class anti-rich snobbery, which is a fairly common phenomenon, but is dismissed out of hand in the 2005 version. Finally, Ehle has smiling eyes that convey a depth of meaning that is stunning.

I went into the film expecting Knightley, the headliner, to be hard-pressed to make a good comparison with Ehle. She did a respectable job, but I was ultimately not surprised.

What did surprise me was Matthew MacFayden, who gives a terrific performance as Darcy. This is a daunting task, given how widely loved Colin Firth's Darcy was in the BBC production. (Indeed, his Darcy in that production led to him being chosen as Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones' Diary.) Firth expressed a pained discomfort in his dealings with people that was palatable. His interactions with Elizabeth start with his attempt to dismiss her, as he naturally dismisses most people, and then go from there. MacFayden starts off slowly. In the early part of the film, he doesn't express discomfort so much as disinterest. But it does pick up from there. By the middle of the film he has found a new Darcy - strong and resolute, though pained. It is an appealing metamorphisis. Does it compare favorably with Firth? Well, I still would prefer Firth's portrayal, but at least MacFayden has taken the character in a new and interesting direction.

I saw two major differences between the film and the BBC production. First, the film did not glorify the period living, the way that the BBC production did, and indeed most costume dramas do. Instead of a manor house that was in order, the Bennet residence was a working farm, with geese and pigs moving about. The contrast with the Binghley estate, and especially with Lady Catherine de Burgh's estate, was marked. This distinction was appreciated.

The second major difference was the time compression. Jane Austen novels are notable for her ability to develop a large number of characters. Sadly, a number of the minor characters get short shrift in the film. The villain Wickham is hardly developed at all - his interest in Elizabeth was totally short-circuited to move him quickly along to his seduction of Lydia. Lydia herself was a delight in the BBC production - again, her role was diminished in the film, as were all the sisters. Worse, the characters of Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley are nearly rendered completely trivial in the film. They were far more interesting in the BBC version, and integral to the plot! The film does a disservice to Jane by completely ignoring her when she goes to London. And Bingley, who is charming if not terribly deep in the BBC version, is reduced to a silly man in the film.

Having said that, I'd say the biggest drop off was the in the portrayal of Mr. Collins, the preacher cousin who decides to propose to Elizabeth, is rebuffed, and then marries her friend who doesn't love him. Tom Hollander does a good job with the role - it is simply that David Bamber was magnificent in the BBC production. (Indeed, Bamber is listed third in the credits after Firth and Ehle - Hollander is buried in comparison.) Judi Dench is, however, and this comes as no surprise, terrific as Lady Catherine de Bourg. I'd say her performance was the only one clearly superior in the film as opposed to the BBC version (with all due respect to Catherine Leigh-Hunt).

On the whole, the film is definitely worth seeing. Keira Knightley had to stretch to play Elizabeth Bennet - she is doing a good job with the role considering her age. Let's keep in mind the career arcs of leading ladies such as Nicole Kidman, who was doing junk at a similar age but has evolved into a terrific actress. Knightley doesn't quite dominate the movie as, say, Helena Bonham Carter dominated her breakout film, A Room with a View. But there's definitely enough talent here to keep track of.