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Pride & Prejudice

Posted by martinteller on November 10, 2013

It’s a question many cinephiles wrestle with: how does one approach an adaptation?  Do you praise it for finding creative solutions for cinematic shortcuts, or condemn it for straying from what made the book great?  Should a movie attempt to recreate the tone and experience of the source material, or is it okay to craft something new out of it?  And most importantly in this case, speaking for myself… can I fairly judge this without having read the novel?

Because even without my Austen-loving girlfriend filling in the gaps for me, it is clear that there is important material missing here.  Most troublesome is the characterization of Mr. Darcy (played here by Matthew Macfadyen).  There’s little connective tissue between the arrogant, aloof Darcy of his first few appearances and the somewhat shy, noble Darcy of the second half of the film.  They feel like two different characters with only an unsatisfactory explanation for his early behavior.  And I had no idea how or why he suddenly appeared to be in love with Elizabeth (a typically unimpressive performance by Keira Knightley).  Many scenes feel rushed, and one can almost hear the scissors flying to cut the screenplay down to a manageable length.  I also felt tremendously sorry for poor Mr. Collins, who I’m told is a much more unappealing figure in the novel, but as played by Tom Hollander (rapidly becoming a favorite actor of mine) is mostly just awkward.  He comes off as the underdog, and I like underdogs.

So there are obvious problems in trying to condense the material for the silver screen.  As someone who has never read a word of Austen (shame on me), I felt at a distinct disadvantage and couldn’t help wondering how much more enjoyable it would have been had I possessed some familiarity with the story and characters.  Nonetheless, I found more to like than dislike.  Joe Wright can sometimes get too fussy and show-offy with his camerawork (as in the beach scene of Atonement) but for the most part in this film, when the camera is in motion, it’s an exquisite dance.  It’s an aesthetically gorgeous movie, with striking art direction and some really, really wonderful compositions… I actually paused the film at one point to admire a particularly expressive one.  The shot where all the other dancers vanish, leaving Elizabeth and Darcy alone, was pulled off magnificently, leaving me to wonder how I didn’t notice what was happening until it had already happened.

In addition to the visual splendor, it is a rather compelling tale, especially in the second half where it gets less messy.  I rooted for Lizzie and Darcy by the end, something that I was sure wouldn’t happen based on the early scenes.  Besides Hollander, there are delightful supporting performances by Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn.  And to be fair, Knightley isn’t that terrible, but I did wish she’d quit speaking through her teeth.  It’s often hard enough to make out the dialogue, coming as fast as it does.  I suppose Macfayden deserves credit for turning Darcy from a character I was entirely against into one I kind of liked… it’s not his fault that it felt like the meat of this transformation was cut from the script.

Worth watching for the cinematographic aspects alone, though I feel I’d have gotten along with this movie much better had I read the novel first.  I suspect the most ardent supporters are those who already love Jane Austen.  Rating: Good (75)

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4 Responses to “Pride & Prejudice”

  1. nancy said

    Joe Wright is one of my least fav directors out there. Someone once described him as having fun with a camera and forgetting all the rest about a film. To me, he’s camera work and very little compelling story. I hate what he did with P and P. From the casting to the script, it was pathetic. And you’re right about condensing the movie to two hours. If your GF likes Austen, pick a weekend afternoon and watch the BBC version with her. It’s five hours and amazing. It’s pretty much perfection, in large part because you get to see how hideous Lizzie’s family is, as well as the transformation of Darcy. You won’t regret it.

    And what the hell was the ferris wheel doing on the beach in Atonement? I believe you appreciate camera-heavy / less-plot directors more than I do – like that guy who did the recent Brad Pitt / Jessica Chastain film (Terrence Malick?). But I would give this one a 60 at best.

    • My gf confirms your appraisal of the BBC version, in fact she commented last night that she needs to get me to watch it!

      I like good camerawork when it isn’t all about just designing some elaborate shot to show off. Malick’s camera is busy but it rarely feels fussy and/or overly choreographed. Wright obviously puts a lot of thought into where the camera is going to move… perhaps too much thought at times, as it often calls too much attention to itself. But I did find the imagery in this version quite lovely… some very painterly compositions, and nice halos of light.

  2. I’ll join Nancy and your gf in urging the BBC version on you! It’s nothing like as witty and tough as the novel, but I love the BBC version anyway. Your point about perhaps one needing to love Austen already to love this movie is interesting. I think there might be some Austen lovers who would happily fill in the gaps in this film and just like the film for what it is, a pretty sort of riff on the book with very little depth. But I’m one of those Austen lovers who hate, hate, hated this film, for all of the reasons you describe, actually (eg. Knightley’s clenched teeth and jutting chin are nails on a chalkboard), and more (eg. this version is so sentimental – ugh, that ending!).

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