30 January 2010

The enduring charm of Pride And Prejudice

Why is it that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice enjoys such a place of pride in the history of literary annals? The book has been re-imagined for the screen at least thrice, once as mini-series on BBC, which is still considered the most definitive adaptation of Austen’s classic. Yet, the fascination for it prevails and this eighteenth-century novel remains as one of the most widely read texts in the world.

So what is it that attracts filmmakers to keep revisiting Pride And Prejudice, as director Joe Wright last did with his Keira-Knightley film in 2005? Is it because Austen's heroine in the novel - with her pluck and wit - appeals as much to modern-day men and women as she did in her period?

Now, much has been made about Austen being a feminist and so on. Beyond the fact that the author liked and rewarded her heroines for being less superficial than the rest, it must be fairly stated that there was no real attempt on Austen's part to drastically break away from the prevailing conventions of her time. She was very much part of the patriarchal set-up and didn't really bother herself with the gender politics, though she was keen and discerning enough to understand that it existed. Her stories faintly hinted at injustice towards women, wherein they could not own property or pursue a real career, but she adapted to the time she lived in. If anything, she laid some stress on her female characters negotiating their space and freedom in their given circumstances.

One of the reasons that keeps this classic so fresh is that to this day a great premium is laid on matrimony and a woman finding the perfect match for herself. Also, the Darcy- Elizabeth love-hate relationship remains one of the most romantic happenings in literature. There is something curiously exciting and even gratifying about a man of pride, position, and privilege humbling himself before love and being so vulnerable to the emotion. This is precisely what readers across ages and generations have found so endearing about the debonair personality of M. Darcy.

The other reason for the novel to remain relavant is the character of Elizabeth (Lizzy), who in her own way, refuses to entirely comply with the conventions of her time. The pragmatism and cynicism of the age she lived in does not prevent her from being a romantic idealist. It is this quality that Darcy finds incredibly attractive. But as we know, Lizzy, for all her bright wit and exuberance, is charmingly naive. She makes an error of judgement with respect to Darcy, hating him with a passion, only to find herself in the wrong and then getting violently drawn to him.

Considering that the BBC mini-adaptation absolutely nailed the book, capturing every word and emotion to perfection, there was nothing really left for the next screen adaptation to do but approach it slightly differently. What Joe Wright and the makers do in the 2005 version of the film is to concentrate more on recreating the ambience, mood and visuals, rather than going too deeply into the characters or the story. The makers have gone with the assumption that most people already know about the story. Right from the first scene, where Keira Knightley, presented as the free-spirited Lizzy walks towards her home with a book in hand, the camera gorgeously moves capturing the pretty countryside in all its glory. The attempt is to bring alive the mood and magic as depicted in the Austen novel. The evening balls have been splendidly recreated and every setting is pitch perfect with a warm, lived-in feel to it.

Also, in spite of the film covering an entire novel in just a little over two hours, it manages to look not too hurried. If anything, it is a bit languorous and sometimes even audibly problematic. The characters seem to say some key sentences in an off hand way.

Yet, all the key scenes have been retained with some changes being made to make the experience more cinematic or impactful. Like for example, there is that scene where Lizzy and Mr And Mrs Collins are dining with Lady Catherine. The latter asks Lizzy some pointed questions in her patronizing way, to which Lizzy's answers are both witty and unflinching, much to the shock of Lady Catherine. In the book, Mr Darcy is not part of this scene. But in the film, he is. This is a good choice because it helps you understand in quick time why Darcy could have been enamoured with Lizzy. Also, this is a very well-done scene , with Judy Dench as the domineering Lady Catherine in full form.

Again, the famous proposal scene between the leads happens outdoors in the rain to heighten its impact. In fact, many scenes are shot outdoors to give the film a visually sumptuous feel. The other change that has been made is that when Lizzy visits Pemberley, she sees Darcy with his sister in an exaggerated joyful state. The original has Lizzy taken by surprise to see Darcy there, and both experience a rare moment of ecstasy. Like the novel says, “Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.” This should have been ideally retained in the film.

Also, the character of Collins - the infamous cousin of the Bennet sisters - has been lampooned only by way of his shortness in the film. If not for his midget-like appearance, his face and manners carry the impression of him being a perfectly respectable and decent young man. Never does he really come across like the pompous and irritating man Austen intended him to be. Of course, he mouths all those funny lines in the proposal scene, but he comes across as more pitiable than ludicrous here.

The casting for Lizzy’s character was the most important one, but somehow Keira Knightley just doesn’t fit the bill. The makers probably wanted a today’s version of Elizabeth but what you get is a rather flighty, giggly female, with not an iota of the grace that is so essential to Lizzy’s character. The others are adequate. Matthew Macfadyen, as Darcy, looks odd at places keeping a stiff upper lip, but he also exudes a certain vulnerability which is charming.

Overall though, this is a fine adaptation. And must not be missed for its luminous visuals and stunning recreation of a bygone era.


Sharmila said...

What a fabulous site you have created for just books! Amazing, I have read only a few of what you have written on and yet again will check out your review and pick it up. I have become a bit lazy with reading of late and this site really helps.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Thanks Sharmila.

What's your email id?

Sharmila said...

My mail id is sharmilasays@gmail.com
PS - Reading CB's Two states now. Enjoying it to the hilt.

shikhar said...

one of the top 10 literary works of all times. substance, class, charm humor, romance and above everything- a classy plot replete with so many twists and turns.a classic of classics,period.