Books into Movies: Pride and Prejudice, part II

P & P filmThe beauty of the updating in the 2005 film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is that emotion, feelings, or what Austen called sensibility have a say in the story; so the film is less of a satire than the book, and it is also kinder. I think this is the only version of Pride & Prejudice where Mrs. Bennet gets to be more than an empty-headed and uncouth comic turn. In this film, her preoccupation with marrying off her girls is her way of trying to do her best for them; and in this particular she is more practical and rational than her two eldest daughters. Her euphoric silliness at Bingley’s ball, where she drinks too much, tells everyone that Jane is soon to marry Bingley, flips sherbet on another guest, apologizes profusely, and sings to herself, is more endearing than appalling.

And Mr. Bennett calls her “Blossom”! (As if he likes her!) He does laugh at her ‘nerves’, but with a tenderness that redeems his relationship to her, which in the book and every other film version is coolly critical, although ‘humorous’. (Which only means he’s laughing at her, and we can too.) Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet and Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs. Bennet, by the addition of a few words, one scene, a change in the way they speak the dialogue from the book, and eloquent body language, shift Austen’s portrayal of a miserable marriage to one that is founded on affection, despite the couple’s differences in values and temperament.

Throughout the movie, we feel sympathy instead of contempt for other less-than-perfect characters – for Mary, the plain sister, who tries so hard to be accomplished as a musician, even though she is tone-deaf. The scene at the ball where Mr. Bennet has to ask her to give others a turn at the piano has an add-on, where he hugs her and tries to comfort her as she weeps and says, “But I practiced all week! I hate balls.” Even the bumptious Mr. Collins has his moment of wistfulness, showing that a pompous buffoon has dreams, too.

The other part of getting the feelings in, besides feeling sympathy for characters who were only ridiculous before, is that for once Mr. Wickham is believable as someone who could con a young woman as supposedly astute as Lizzy. In Rupert Friend’s portrayal, Wickham comes across as disarming instead of smarmy. His comment (another change from the book) that he is ‘unimportant’ and has no taste in ribbons but will buy some for Lydia, is in striking contrast to Darcy’s stiff self-importance; and Lizzy’s preference for Wickham finally makes sense. Even the viewer who knows better likes him. But what also works (another addition) is his violence near the end, when his new wife Lydia is standing in the carriage, waving goodbye to her family and simpering, and he jerks on her arm and orders her to sit down. It is only a moment seen through wavy glass; but it is a chilling glimpse of Lydia’s future with a con man who has been trapped into marrying her.

Last but not least: the best bit of getting the feelings in, is the way Lizzy and Darcy interact throughout the film. The scene when he proposes and she turns him down is different from the book or any film version. The same words are spoken with such intensity that you believe in Darcy as a passionate man, and in Lizzy as a woman who is attracted in spite of herself, which makes her subsequent upset more understandable. (That they are soaking wet from being caught in a rainstorm is another inspired addition.) And the way they finally get together is masterful. Instead of the randomness of them being left alone together while walking to town, and having a stilted conversation in which they sort out what is really going on between them, the two meet at dawn on a bridge, as if pulled there by the magnetism of their shared attraction. The paucity of conversation at this point in the book is no problem here; the viewer doesn’t need long explanations to finally believe that Lizzy is in love, too, and that this story really is a love story.

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