Friday, January 20, 2006

A Tale of Two Prides

I caught up with the 2005 film version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at a subrun double feature, presumably before it disappears until DVDed. I loved Austen's novels, which combine great wit and writing, social and character study, with strong stories. Pride and Prejudice has emerged as the story that touches people most deeply and has the most powerful cultural hold of nearly mythic intensity. Inevitably this kind of story is retold with different emphases at different times, by different storytellers.

The 1940 version starring Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson is one of my favorite movies, for a combination of reasons I can't fully describe. I used to watch it every New Year's Eve. But by now it's clear that like many Shakespeare plays, this Austen novel is too large to be contained in a single movie, and the best a movie can do is emphasize aspects of it with a fresh vision. If done with enough heart and skill, Austen is only enhanced.

This version is a very different kind of movie based on the same novel, and it works for me. Moreover, some of the differences are fascinating in themselves. The 1940 version was located in the Hollywood set version of elegant England. There was much talk, as in the novel, of the modesty of the Bennet household, and the financial necessity for the sisters to marry well. While the Bennet family was portrayed as a kind of small town American brood, and Olivier's Darcy and his friends were obviously snobbish, the material difference was hard to see.

Not so in the new version. Here the vast gulf between the country folk and the landed gentry with their estates and houses in London is very obvious. The Bennet household includes pigs and geese and other farm animals, and fields to cultivate and harvest---so there's a sense of how it actually supports itself, missing from the 1940 version. Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) is a working farmer, as well as the father who retreats to his ramshackle study for the shelter of books. We see a direct contrast in the uniformed servant with his precise walk to the exact center of the room to announce visitors to the Darcy crowd, and the shamble by the Bennet's hayseed hired man to announce theirs.

The country folk are mostly unattractive but excited at their noisy, sweaty ball, but they all freeze into a gaping frieze at the appearance of the two gentlemen, Mr. Bingley (Simon Wood) and Mr. Darcy ( Matthew Macfadyen), and the snobbishly cynical Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly). In this scene, director Joe Wright also makes Darcy appear about a foot taller than everyone else in the room. After gaping and bowing at them like the freaks they are in this place, the locals then ignore them as they go back to their enthusiastic dancing.

Late in the film, Wright ups the ante even more by presenting Darcy's estate as huge and utterly magnificent. In an almost modern touch, he follows the heroine Elizabeth Bennet's refusal of Darcy's offer of marriage with a scene of her touring the palace that could have been hers, on a kind of great homes tour.

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