Monday, October 31, 2005
Pirates of Pemberley
I saw the new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice a little while ago. The present ten-year Jane Austen movie cycle has now officially jumped the shark, for this is a truly lame film and a wasted opportunity to do something fresh and interesting with a uniquely well-known story.
I really like Austen’s novels, and don’t think they could be any better than they are. Well, OK, I have sometimes fleetingly wished they had just a little more about pirates in them: and Pride and Prejudice is, beyond doubt, the most suitable candidate for a piratey makeover, seeing as it’s already a Neverland fantasy version of late eighteenth-century English life, and already more than halfway into Gilbert and Sullivan territory. So I was seriously heartened, about five minutes into the hitherto unpromising movie, when a pair of swinging saloon doors was thrown open upon the Meryton assembly rooms revealing a swarming of scurvy, hearty buccaneers, gathered for a rollicking country dance in what appeared to be the rat-infested hold of a tar-daubed seventy-four gunner. An Austen movie with Dirt! Yesss! The dancers were gratifyingly filthy and dishevelled, packed in like salt pork, bewigged, tricorn-hatted and floppy-shirted, squittering, and stomping about to some appropriately hornpipey-chantyish ditty.
With swiftly rising spirits I anticipated how this bold new adaptation, for such it suddenly seemed to be, would develop. Perhaps the respectable London merchants the Gardiners would turn out to be Cornish wreckers swinging lanterns over the rocks by night to lead unsuspecting merchant ships to their doom. Mr Bennet might choke to death on a doubloon and his five daughters forcibly abduct Mr Collins and make him walk the plank. Charlotte Lucas could housekeep and cross-dress her way to the top of the British navy, drinking a bottle of wine every day as she went. Instead of running off with Wickham, Lydia Bennet could head up a failed mutiny & be abandoned in a whaleboat drifting on the Pacific with no parasol and nothing to eat but Kitty. For this, I thought, I am willing to bear Keira Knightley’s smirking, blank-eyed version of Elizabeth, Donald Sutherland’s glassy, senile Mr Bennet with incongruously glittering Beverley Hills bridgework, and all the boringly heavy hints about how hard an intelligent but impoverished woman’s lot was in c18, how critically important to make a good marriage, blah blah, zzzzzz.
I was mentally putting the finishing touches on how the dialogue ought to go - “Yarr, Darcy, I must have ye dance, ye whoreson bilge-drinker. I hate t’ see ye standin’ about by yourself in this mangy mannerrr. Ye had much better dance - or be keelhauled. Arr!” - when these enjoyable musings were spoilt by the arrival of a pair of ominously unsmutched Bingleys toting
Comeback Special Elvis a Darcy about whom it must universally be acknowledged that he is not, and is unlikely to ever turn into, Colin Firth. How can such a thing be? Women all over the world are desperately trying to understand.
As my salty dreams faded and the movie inexorably ground on, I began to think that demonstrating the utter irrelevance of Colin Firth to its universe is indeed the chief motive of Pride and Prejudice ‘05 (that and making a squillion million, of course.) The movie is too conscious of the 1996 TV serial: it wants to duplicate that version’s success, but without acknowledging it as an honourable and still impressive precursor. The film makes a long string of adaptational choices and decisions which have no purpose I could guess at other than to drive the BBC / A&E series out of everyone’s minds. (A bit like telling a person not to think of an elephant.) And so some seriously self-defeating innovations are introduced. One example will do. In the novel, when Elizabeth first sees Pemberley, Austen works the gears to build a pitch of feeling in her that recognises, in the civilized achievement of the house and in its deep connection to the natural beauty of the place, a true representation of the house’s owner. Indoors, Elizabeth’s silent, inward revolutions peak in front of a portrait of Darcy: “fix[ing] his eyes upon herself”, she recognizes his gaze, and claims her part in creating it. By contrast, Pemberley’s exterior is barely seen in the film – the camera must be allowed time to slip lasciviously over the marble banisters and gilt and velvet and Mannerist frescoed ceiling inside. It has become the mere “fine house richly furnished” Mrs Gardiner scorned to look at, and movie-Elizabeth’s admiration of the ostentatious decorations cheapens and trivializes her fascination with Darcy’s home. Led upstairs by the housekeeper, her attention is claimed not by a portrait of Darcy but a gallery full of small neoclassical statues; she peers curiously at some athlete’s naked buttocks. (Alas, a Middlemarch moment, gone wrong?)
I would guess that every spectator in the cinema was wondering, at this point, about the imminent arrival of Mr Darcy outside, and whether he would turn up wet as is now customary. Darcy duly appeared, fully clothed and quite undampened; the flatness and perfunctoriness of the rushed conversation he and Elizabeth then held suggested that the filmmakers had already decided they could neither imitate nor top the competition and so wished, ungraciously, only to defuse this scene and move on from it as fast as possible. (Don’t worry – a bare-chest-outdoors bit does get crammed in, at the last possible moment. There’s nothing like having a bet each way.)
Pride and Prejudice’s disavowal of the BBC serial extends to the lengths of pastiching elements derived of the two movies routinely held up as the most artistically successful of recent period Austen adaptations – the BBC Persuasion of 1995 and Miramax’s Mansfield Park. Deaf to the tonal differences between those stories and Pride and Prejudice, the film copies set-pieces from those movies in ways that strip them of their local, contextual significances. The billowing white dust-sheeting which the Persuasion film uses to make manifest Anne Elliot’s silent mourning reappears, meaninglessly, after the Bingleys move out of Netherfield; whatever you think of the Mansfield Park adaptation, caged birds have a poetic significance, and justification, in that film which they do not in this movie, where they’re conspicuously displayed in the Bennets’ bedroom. Mrs Bennet as the poor, trapped starling? Uh, no. It’s been argued that classic novel adaptations, understood as a genre, typically respond to one another more profoundly than to their individual literary sources; the interbreeding of the Jane Austen films supports this observation, and further suggests that formal mimicry without corresponding thematic connectedness, without understanding, is an empty practice, whether it’s carried out from book to film or between parallel adaptations.
Pride and Prejudice lacks an inner rhythm or tension or drive of its own. It is a compilation of Greatest Hit scenes from the novel, each scene cut down as much as those responsible thought they could get away with, and strung passively together. Oh, and damn it’s not funny. (D’ye comprehend how thoroughly Mr Collins must be eviscerated in order to un-funny him and remodel him as a psychokiller / stalker type person? Or how much behind-the-scenes work must go into first boring Judi Dench into a cataleptic trance then training her up to be Lady Catherine de Bourgh, only boring?)
Some reviews have suggested the film is trying for a Bronteish setting: moors, driving rain, crags, shouting, etc – I don’t see it (if there is a old-skool English and literary model, it’s got to be Thomas Hardy.) The film’s physical environment is bizarre – the duckpond looks like it’s swarming with avian flu germs, the Bennet’s yard is awash in Pythonesque muck, and oh did I mention the enormous swinging pig testicles? – and reminded me more of James Herriot country than any place else.
The frocks, however, were lovely.
Ahoy, it be a trrruth uni’ersally acknowledged, that a sin’le salty dog in possession o’ a vast swag o’ booty must be in want o’ a wife. Gar, where can I find a bottle o’rum?
If they only had listened to me. In my counterfactual version Elizabeth would have married the genteel, courtly, reserved Friedrich Nietszche in the last chapter, living happily ever after much to everyone’s surprise, and permanently changing the world of philosophy too.(See Gilman’s “Conversations With Nietszche")
Absolutely fecking brilliant, Laura. I’ve always thought P&P had a terrible dearth of buccaneers.
Very good! Even though I liked the movie, I wholly enjoyed this review (As I keep saying, I’m a Libran, I can swing both ways). I do hope you’re going to publish that PhD… you’re a great writer!
I thought Donald’s hair was pretty piratey, and surely the Kiera/Pirate connection counted for something?
Yes his hair was quite pirate-like, and his glazed manner seemed to imply that he’d been swigging on the rum bottle. It didn’t go anywhere, though. As for Keira Knightley she didn’t really get into the proper spirit of proceedings in either movie, and really thinking about the whole subject just makes me sad that Johnny Depp was not persuaded to do Wickham. By the time they make another film of P & P he’ll be too old.
He’d probably do a pretty good Mr Bennet ‘tho.
I do remember being VERY disappointed by Lizzie’s reaction to Pemberley. The schoolgirl giggle just made it look like she realized that she’d just spurned the most popular boy in school.
Far better was the moment when the ballroom cleared of people after Darcy answered Lizzie back whilst dancing. Showed a proper reaction on both parts (apart from the fact that it wasn’t in the book).
"Showed a proper reaction on both parts (apart from the fact that it wasn’t in the book).”
What, you mean like the infamous Pond Scene, WHICH ALSO ISN’T IN THE BOOK?
Yes, that is what I mean! Believe it or not, I don’t like the pond scene either. In BBC P&P I’m a fan of the Look , not the body… I’m not one of those who rewind the pond scene over and over. I’d rather watch the ball scenes, especially when Darcy and Lizzie are actually dancing together. Who needs cheesecake? I prefer frisson…
mmmm… frisson… I like the refusal scene the best. nothing like a good dressing down.
A most excellent and timely review, Laura, and I shall heed it accordingly.
Very nice piece! I am forwarding this to the silliest girls in all Christendom ie those I know who thought it infinitely surerior to the Beeb version.
LOL! Thanks so much for your review, Laura.
Thanks, Hil - glad you enjoyed it.
Fantastic review Laura - although my motivation to see this one was zilch. I’m happy with the book and Colin Firth, in that order, thanks. If my sadly deluded chick-lit-reading fourteen year old goes to see it, I’ll refer her to you.
Bother, I was hoping that it wouldn’t be as bad as I suspected it might… and you have firmly dashed those hopes.
Thank you for saving me the hire fee. Lovely piece of writing too, now all I can think of is pirates and Johnny Depp.
Dear Ms Carroll:
Thanks for the reminder that we’re supposed to be viewing a comedy of manners, which presupposes manners,- and mannerisms-, to begin with!The 1940 film has flaws, yet in 118 minutes it managed to never show itself lacking in good manners. Mr. Collins, bless Melville Cooper, is as foppish and( acc to Lydia)puddin’faced as it behooves a parson NOT to be. Edna May Oliver’s Lady Catherine is silly and eccentric,but in the end downright good;( Jane Austen writes that she visits Pemberley after Eliza and Darcy marry).She at least is not the banshee of the Colin Firth production whose anger never lightens. That IS very bad manners! Judy Dench in the more current production does not improve the film at all: but by then there is no comedy left! They have all taken themselves so bloody seriously!
The worst however is indeed the parents: For the latest film I applaud you comments on Sutherland!
But think back on Mrs.Bennet in the Firth version. She’s more irritating than funny!
Then think of the sweet line that closes on Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn: “Think of it Mr. Bennet, three daughters married and the other two just tottering on the brink!”