"Pride and Prejudice": The Brooklyn Arden Review

First, I quote: “Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one person you can't be without.”

Hello, clichés? Ending a sentence with a preposition? Only a passing resemblance to the novel? This tagline on the movie poster taught me exactly how much to expect from this version of "Pride and Prejudice," and for that I thank the marketing people at Focus Features, as otherwise I would be writing a much more keyed-up, pissed-off, and disappointed review.

As it is, I went in not expecting very much at all, and this is good, as I now call this "P&P: the 'What the Hell???' version." This name derives from the filmmakers’ incredibly puzzling interpretation of the novel, which results in pigs in the Bennets’ hallway, the First Proposal in the rain, shots of running deer, and sundry other “What the hell???” choices that don’t make sense historically, fictionally, or especially as an adaptation.

I can kind of guess at what they were thinking. P&P is one of the world’s Great Romances, and Lizzy and Darcy rank up there with Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind and Orlando, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff and Cathy, Lord Peter and Harriet, Rick and Ilsa, Harry and Sally, and Jesse and Celine (and I mean all of these entirely seriously) as classic romantic protagonists. Another Focus tagline for the movie was, “This holiday season, experience the greatest love story of all time,” and while that’s a title with a lot of competition, P&P would definitely be in the running.

But the filmmakers’ crucial mistake (which resulted in the WTHness) was in not distinguishing between a great Romantic romance, a la Romeo and Juliet and the Bronte examples given above, and a great Rationalist romance, a la Rosalind and Orlando, Lord Peter and Harriet, and all the cinematic examples cited. Romantic romances concentrate on feeling foremost: love at first sight, passion even unto death, “You are my everything,” blah blah blah. They are intense, sexual, dangerous, and the intensity and drama and danger of the relationship is of course as much of an attraction for the lovers as the individuals themselves are.

Rationalist romances do not lack feeling (or sex), but their protagonists are aware of principles and claims outside each other—they have a sense of proportion. As Rosalind puts it: “Men have died before, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” And they fall in love for reasons besides its forbidden nature, namely, that they like each other, they have things in common, they are kind to each other, they can talk to each other (a crucial element, as their conversations usually make up at least a third of the book/play/movie -- and you want to listen to them). As Austen describes it after Elizabeth comes to appreciate Darcy: “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.”

(Ah, an interlude of Austen prose. Didn’t that just bring a little delight and clarity to your day?)

Where was I? Yes. So. The filmmakers had a Great Romance on their hands, and knew it; but they chose to adapt, design, and especially shoot it as if it were a Romantic romance rather than a Rationalist one, probably because our benighted mass culture worships the commercialized signs of love much more than the actual thing they signify. The result is a case study in Form not following Function. As the lines quoted above show, the narrative voice in P&P is affectionate, precise, gently mocking. Cinematography’s role in a film adaptation is to reproduce that narrative voice (I am sure many film theorists would disagree with me), and the cinematography here was more suited to a Anne Rice adaptation than Jane Austen: overdramatic close-ups, unnecessary dramatic angles, lots of hand-held camera movements, occasional effects like Elizabeth staring at herself in the mirror as hours pass . . . These heavy-handed techniques perhaps carried the romance (particularly as the script does so little to establish it), but they drowned the humor, and they made Austen’s thoroughly linear, “light, bright, and sparkling” story and dialogue feel entirely beside the point. The movie wants P&P to be more passionate and romantic than it is, in the conventional Romantic windswept way, so it forces it into that mold, with ridiculous, unsatisfying results.

And while many of the script adaptations were a bit strange (Lizzy not telling Jane about the First Proposal? Mr. and Mrs. Bennet sincerely in love?) and the interpolations eyeroll-worthy (Mr. Collins making intercourse jokes? Eeeegh), the only unforgivable alteration was to the text of the First Proposal scene. What on earth is wrong with “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”? The answer is “absolutely nothing,” and I would send no compliments to this movie solely on the basis of that change.

That said, compliments. Most of the casting was strong, especially Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy; I even preferred him to Colin Firth of the great P&P2, as he was more expressive, more vulnerable, and less stiff. (Or, as the astute Editrix of AustenBlog said, “What a very fine, strapping, juicy hunk of British woof on the hoof. Bring that gaping frilly shirtage over here, sir, and you can leave your boots on.”) Keira Knightley did not get Elizabeth’s depths or sweetness (tending toward the pert, as most Elizabeths do), but she reminded me of how young Lizzy is supposed to be, and she looked pretty, at the least. Brenda Blethyn and Dame Judi Dench each excelled at what little they were given to do. The dresses were gorgeous, of course, and the country dancing made me quite long for a ball.

To close: When the DVD is released, I invite all my female readership over to play the "P&P:WTH" Drinking Game. The rules are these:

1) Whenever there is an overdramatic closeup, you drink.
2) Whenever there is livestock or a wild animal on screen, you drink.
3) Whenever there is a ridiculous line like “Your hands are cold,” you heckle, and then you drink.

A good time will be had by all. In the meantime: Feh.