Pride and Prejudice
All my life I was told to read Jane Austen. Every prominent novelist of the last hundred years has been heard to say that he or she owed everything to that great woman: a sense of story, an invisible narrative voice, a genius for creating character out of a few lines of dialogue, a compelling yet relaxed style that rewards rereading every few years by revealing new insights each time; in a word, a graduate course in fiction, led by a master of the form.
And though I have read and reread with great pleasure other 19th century masters, particularly my favorites Thackeray and Stendhal, my abject confession is that to date I have yet to read a Jane Austen novel. Everything I know of her works I have learned from television and film versions. Flog me if you will, discount anything I say from here on in, but grant me at least your acknowledgment of my honesty. Because the fact is, I love her, even if translated imperfectly to another medium.
As is the latest version of "Pride and Prejudice," with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy. Here the plain, and plain-spoken Elizabeth is played by the stunning 20-year-old beauty Knightley, who makes it hard to believe that she, and not her older sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) is the desirable one, even granting that society requires that the eldest must be married first. Nevertheless, as I watched the film I did believe, and was completely caught up in the roundelay of status, wealth, snobbery and love that fill the story. Elizabeth, honest and bold-spoken, has the wit and frankness to speak her mind and keep her body secure from whiny suitors like the little vicar Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) while she finds herself fascinated by the strange Mr. Darcy, a man incapable of either wit or duplicity. In fact it is his inability to dissemble, coupled with Elizabeth's insistence on honesty, that conspires to keep them apart until neither we nor they can stand it for another moment, which of course is exactly the right time for them to come together.
So much of the film is good - perfect, even - that I feel guilty carping at the little niggling things, so let me first say that Mr. Macfadyen is a wonderful Darcy, socially inept but secure in his rectitude. Not only do we believe him, we believe in him, which is even better. The homes we see, from the down-at-heels Bennet mansion to the spectacular palaces of their betters, as they themselves would say, are just right. Much of the acting is fine, particularly Judi Dench as the dreadful lady Catherine de Bourg, determined to sunder Elizabeth's and Darcy's match. But I found Brenda Blethyn, as Mrs. Bennet, too shrill and one-note to be believable; and Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet to be just a bit too passive. The direction by first-timer Joe Wright seemed to me to mix clichéd shots with more interesting ones; we never knew which would come next. His handling of the dances, as occasions for social climbing as well as simple enjoyment; and the interchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy as they danced, were good; yet he used too many swooping crane shots, taking us from room to room to room, for my taste. Nevertheless, I remain thoroughly entranced by the film and only wish that I too had had the chance to dance with Ms. Knightley.