Friday, January 20, 2006

The 2005 Darcy and Lizzie.
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.

text continues after photo

Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier in the 1940 version. Posted by Picasa
This visualization of the class differences is the most obvious difference and contribution of this film. This makes the material stakes clearer---the Bennet girls don't need to marry into the gentry (they aren't golddiggers or social climbers), but just to stay at their present level, since their home and lands will go to a male relative according to the law.

But there are also noteworthy and interesting differences in narrative and character shadings. Though keeping some of Austen's references to the ages of the sisters (the oldest in her late 20s), this film portrays them as younger, especially Keira Knightley as the heroine, Lizzie Bennet. She is bright and witty, but no Greer Garson. She seems more like a mischevious 20 at the oldest, trembling with girlish energy. This actually works to make plausible the idea that she's considered the less attractive sister. When she wrinkles up her nose, giggles and ducks her head, having fun with her sisters, it's plausible that her beauty, so evident in repose, would go unnoticed.

Her "more beautiful" older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike) is evidently beautiful, and is seen much more in repose. What makes this film work immediately is how perfectly matched she is with Simon Wood's Mr. Bingley. Both are shy, modest and sincere, and seem out of place except with each other. They are also both blond. It takes the dark-haired Elizabeth and dark-haired Darcy awhile to discover the secret of their darkness: though both are flawed with pride and prejudice, they share a fierce moral rectitude not at all incompatible with physically passionate natures.

As for this film's take on Darcy, I endorse Stephen Holden's description in his New York Times review (this time in contrast not with Olivier but Colin Firth's portrayal on the 1990s miniseries):Mr. Firth might have been far more dashing, but Mr. Macfadyen's portrayal of the character as a shy, awkward suitor whose seeming arrogance camouflages insecurity and deep sensitivity is more realistic. Isolated by his wealth, ethical high-mindedness and fierce critical intelligence, Mr. Darcy is as stubborn in his idealism as Elizabeth is in hers. The disparity between his diffidence and her forthrightness makes the lovers' failure to connect more than a delaying tactic to keep the story churning forward; it's a touching tale of misread signals.

This is the first major film by director Joe Wright, and it has the studied innocence and ambition of a first movie. Somebody will no doubt study the significance of the many appearances of flame, and how they dissolve into something else. There are plenty of references to other films, especially Olivier's more famous romantic role in Wuthering Heights. But he has so much visual energy (with a score that suggests Philip Glass playing appropriate bits from classical composers, and I say that with admiration) that the symbolism of Lizzie whirling on a swing when she's confused is not at all heavy-handed because it's so deftly done and neat to look at.

He and the screenplay author (Deborah Moggach) also deliver some subtle scenes and dialogue that illuminate minor characters, in place of the delightful movie caricatures,of 1940, particularly Sutherland's Mr. Bennet. Brenda Blethyn's shrill and frenetic Mrs. Bennet also gets some sympathetic moments, when she makes clear what she's up against, that the necessity of five daughters marrying decently if not exceptionally well is no joke, in an age and place that could condemn them to the most degrading circumstances Dickens presented. (This couldn't have been an easy script to write either, as the story seems to defy Hollywood's preferred simple three-act structure.)

In the last part of the movie, realism is perhaps stretched to accomodate the romance, but the film has earned some indulgence. Perhaps someday I'll put together my own double feature of these two Prides and Prejudices. Maybe next New Year's Eve.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

How to Avoid A Heart Attack (and still be a Steelers fan)

You have to be a veteran Steeler---a veteran Steeler fan, that is--to appreciate the emotions of today's game. For three quarters plus, the Pittsburgh Steelers (#6 seed in the playoffs) dominated the Indianapolis Colts (#1 seed), the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl. No #6 seed had ever done this.

For veterans, it was like thirty years had melted away, and the Steel Curtain, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were invincible. Those were the days when every schoolkid wore a Steelers jacket, and waitresses would ask you if you wanted your coffee black or gold.

Then after another defensive crush, the Steelers were on the goal line for the touchdown that would put the game away, when their Mr. Automatic, the Bus, did the unthinkable and fumbled the ball. The Colts nearly scored a touchdown after recovering it.

This then was a different echo---the talented teams since the 70s, brilliant one week, and yet in playoff games or even once in the Super Bowl, able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in terrible ways, and I'm not talking about towels.Then the Pittsburgh working class self-contempt would kick in, and it would all seem like fate. The little guy never gets a break.

Needless to say, the bonehead plays of the 70s teams were all forgotten, because that now mythic team won so many crucial games, more by the skin of their teeth than most memories would allow.

Anyway, the Steelers survived that scare today when the Colts improbably missed a field goal to tie, and the team that deserved to win did. (In addition to the fumble, the Steelers had a late interception taken away on an inexplicably bad call on replay; they'd lost a couple of other crucial calls as well.) It was the biggest upset of the weekend, although Denver over New England was close.

I taped the game so I could watch it without commercials, and only if it turned out to be worth watching. I didn't even see the score until it was over. I've paid my emotional roller coaster dues. But I'm sure this would have been impossible if I still lived in Pittsburgh (I'm in CA now, where the traditional afternoon games are in the morning, which makes it easier to resist watching them) and my first thought when I read about the fourth quarter, was that I hoped my old friend Clayton didn't have a heart attack.