Pride & Prejudice (2005). Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Matthew MacFadyen, Rosamund Pike, Brenda Blethyn, Jena Malone, and Judi Dench.
This review assumes you know the basic plot trajectory of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Spoilers follow.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a novel in possession of overwhelming approbation must be in want of a movie adaptation.
The problem for said adaptor, of course, is that when adapting a beloved novel into a movie, you’re bound to piss off the former’s most ardent admirers, for whom every subtle difference between the two is an abomination, as well as disappoint layman viewers of the latter, who come into the experience wondering what the fuss is about in the first place and therefore needing to be suitably impressed.
And so Joe Wright, a English director filming an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with a mostly English cast (The exceptions, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, are so extraordinary in their respective roles that their foreignness doesn’t matter.), on location in England, finds himself lambasted by mostly American critics for not being faithful to the novel.
But faith is a tricky thing, particularly with Jane Austen. With the exception of her glowing descriptions of Pemberley, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice flicks aside physical details as if they are annoying gnats. Even her comments on the fabulous estate are meant primarily to show how the land is a symbolic reflection of its esteemed owner. She rarely describes anyone’s features other than in the simplest terms—handsome, dark, tall, lovely.
Like Homer, who never describes Helen of Troy but instead describes only her effect on others, Austen allows us to view her protagonists almost entirely through the eyes of her antagonists. When everyone in the novel claims that Jane Bennet is a great beauty, we as readers projects our own ideas of how that beauty actually manifests itself—because we don’t have much choice. Early in the novel, Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth “is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” This especially stings because we’ve already invested so much of our imaginations in giving Lizzy an inquisitive, fierce beauty. (When Darcy later declares her to be “one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance,” this likewise is a jolt, but one that thrills us. At last, he sees her as we see her!)
It’s a lovely trick, one that forces us to fill in the pictures, to make the novel over (so we think, anyway) in our own images. But it’s a trick that’s only capable in written form. Joe Wright has to decide on faces, details of settings, and voices. As such, he’s forced to strip faith away from Austen’s readers. How could he not? We wouldn’t mind so much as Austen had just written “Lizzy, a lithe, voluptuous girl with pale skin, auburn hair, a gently sloping nose, etc., etc.…” or something of that effect. But she didn’t. As a result, Wright’s casting decisions hurt Austen’s faithful much more they would otherwise—his perceived infractions against Austen are, rather, slights against Austen’s readers.
Maybe that explains all the hostility towards this new film version. Austenites—and, I admit, I’m now a budding one—take any change personally. (Anthony Lane and Elizabeth M. Tamny even get upset over the fact that there’s an ampersand in the movie’s title. They both need sedatives.) Great books—and Pride and Prejudice is one of the greatest—are impossible to adapt fully into other art forms precisely because a truly great work of art is one that incorporates to the fullest the particulars of its form. A great novel not only gives us insight into our souls, but does so in ways that could only be accomplished in writing. The same is true for painting, music, architecture, dance, comics, and the rest. Including movies.
Austen does so many things—the artful omission of physical detail; the depiction of Elizabeth’s churning, fluctuating feelings towards Mr. Darcy; the constant use of correspondence as both urgent reportage and description of inner turmoil—that can only be done well in literature. A movie version of Pride and Prejudice couldn’t possibly be a facsimile of the book. (And why would you want it to be, anyway? If the movie is so precise an imitation of the novel, why not just read it?) The movie has to work, if it’s going to work at all, as an interpretation of the source. It needs to stand on its own, as a cinematic enterprise, not as a replica of text. It’s more important that the filmmaker capture the tone of a beloved book, because it’s pointless to expect a movie to capture the book letter by letter.
Joe Wright’s adaptation, despite some glaring flaws, does well by Pride and Prejudice. The film freely adds dialogue that isn’t Austen’s, conflates key passages from letters with conversation, and plays fast and loose with the narrative’s progression. But Austen’s wry comic spirit is intact, as is her brisk pacing and turns of phrase.
We first see Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) in a long, unbroken take as she strides through the Bennet household. The camera’s fluidity and refusal to interrupt the walk with cuts means we take in everything at once—from the mud, to the dilapidated greatness of the home, to the clucking chickens—like one extremely long breath. We’re walking, sometimes jogging, alongside Elizabeth. Right there, he establishes his pace—at once sauntering and fleet-footed—and his heroine, who’s much the same.
Knightley plays Elizabeth as a firecracker, slightly more sure of herself than I imagined from the novel. She’s got one of the most expressive faces in movies, and Knightley manages to recreate Elizabeth’s interior churnings with eyebrow flickers and sly lip turns. Her arms and fingers move in spurts—self-assured, to be sure, but also startling. Her delivery is clipped, taut and tinged with fury, but her voice is scrubbed with warmth. Knightley’s performance radiates intelligence and sharp humor, but we can feel her melting inside at the sight of Darcy even as she tries to keep her wits.
Of course, Matthew MacFadyen could make me lose my wits, and I’m straight. As Mr. Darcy, MacFadyen understands the true generosity of his character, but also understands why Mr. Darcy might want to hide this from view. He’s sexy when he’s standoffish and rigid, he becomes sexier when the rigidity cracks, and he zu-zu-zooms when he unleashes unknown (even to him) torrents of longing. Those eyes, formerly steely and menacing, break our hearts when they quiver after being rejected by Elizabeth.
In Austen’s novel, Elizabeth and Darcy’s (sorry—I can’t call him Fitzwilliam) eventual union is one based mostly on their mutual good sense and their complementing emotional and moral temperaments. There’s no kisses in the novel; the details of a couple’s misguided elopement are suggested rather than drawn out; Elizabeth’s growing love for Darcy is not described in sexual terms. It’s not that Austen’s a prude. W.H. Auden once wrote of her that “you could not shock her more than she shocks me;/ Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.” But passion is the subtext, not the main text.
That’s inventive, but Wright does a good job of ensuring that Knightly and MacFadyen ignite the screen. (They get a sweet kiss at the end that Austen wouldn’t have allowed—Wright is right to include it.) He shoots them in glowing light, with sliding camera movement that’s as graceful as ballet steps. The ability to dance is a primary social skill in this world—Darcy is chastised both in the novel and the movie for being unwilling to dance—and Wright moves the compositions like a choreographer. In a dance sequence in which the protagonists attempt to draw blood, Wright alternates between long, excruciating takes in which harsh, funny words are spoken, and curt edits that show the characters being thrown off-rhythm by each other. Later on during the same ball, his camera follows Elizabeth in one astonishing, unbroken sequence as she looks for a man who’s not there, and subsequently stumbles onto every member of her family making a fool of him/herself in public.
The cast is game for making fools of themselves. Wright adds a sense of slapstick that’s suggested by the novelist, and has chosen actors who can perform it well. Donald Sutherland (as Mr. Bennet) delivers his lines drolly, using dry and mildly mean wit to mask his sadness. A dinner table scene, in which the Bennet family must endure the windbaggery of an obsequious relative (Tom Hollander), percolates beautifully. I laughed each time Mr. Collins opened his mouth for yet another speech, in part because of his delivery, but largely because the people around him are trying so hard not to laugh. A later scene, in which an unexpected visit causes panic and a frenzied cleaning session in the Bennet household, nearly made me fall out of my chair. When the visitors enter the parlor, the six women rise from their chairs in unison, precise and immaculate, like the Borg.
It’s not just slapstick for the hell of it. Wright dramatizes Austen’s understanding of the gulf between a person’s expected behavior and her genuine sentiment, and how this gulf can complicate love. He captures quick glances, bursts of giggles, and eye rolls that express what the characters are thinking without putting their thoughts into words, because these characters can’t speak all their thoughts without losing social status. His Pride & Prejudice captures interiority, but does so through action.
Wright is sometimes overly ambitious. Sometimes, the long, unbroken takes are pointless, revealing little. As often as the film’s movement is fluid, the compositions and framing are just as often static and slack. He runs slipshod over developments that should have more weight. The melancholy string score is too often used to inspire grief over changed circumstances, when a longer scene of plot development would have done better.
In particular, the shame of Lydia’s (Jena Malone’s) elopement with the odious Wickham (Rupert Friend) isn’t adequately developed, but just plopped onto us. Malone gives her all as Lydia, playing her as a flighty, spoiled brat who doesn’t understand how sad she is. But the film doesn’t give her enough to work with. While Elizabeth and Darcy’s passion resonates, it’s hard to understand here why Lydia is so attracted to such an obvious pretty-boy poseur. Wickham’s presence is muted—he really only has two scenes, and he’s rarely discussed until he becomes known as a scoundrel—so his actions don’t register as much as the surging strings would have us believe. And while Malone is terrific, she’s not given enough time to stretch her character out.
Occasionally, Wright’s trust in our intelligence runs out. It was a wise idea to have Darcy reveal his feelings for Elizabeth, and his objections to those very feelings, in a speech to Elizabeth rather than the letter in Austen’s book. It was not wise to have this speech take place amidst Wagnerian rain and thunder. Those strings, so subtle early on, become overpowering as misfortune befalls the Bennets. Judi Dench is lit like a gargoyle, as if her terrific performance wasn’t enough to imply how terrifying she is.
Mostly, though, I’m impressed by the movie. Shot as a roving journalist might photograph it, Pride & Prejudice isn’t overly formal. Its moral concerns are stateliness and social order, but its aesthetics are jumpy and journalistic. Instead of immaculate gowns, we have dresses that are sometimes streaked with mud. Instead of soft-focus lighting and dreary, perfect compositions, we have a roving camera that catches offhand grace like an eavesdropper. Instead of stately, precise pitch, we have the occasional screaming match and words spat out like pistachio shells. It takes Austen’s exquisitely calibrated prose, and shows the roiling just underneath the words.