Pride and Prejudice: Popified, Putrefied Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

After Lily James took out hordes of the undead in zombified Victorian England, the idea of watching two hours of Keira Knightley back in reality inevitably feels deflating. Fortunately for those nonplussed by such a prospect, this Austen adaptation is well aware of its potential for boredom. Too aware, in fact. Director Joe Wright renders the story of Elizabeth Bennet’s love more palatable for the 21st century, but in doing so, he loses much of what made the original novel so fascinating. It’s another unfortunate example of the movie trying but failing to live up to the book.

For those unfamiliar with Austen or Seth Grahame-Smith: P&P tells of the Bennet family’s quest to find suitable grooms. Elizabeth “Liz” Bennet (Keira Knightley) is the second of the family’s five daughters, known for her fiery wit and independence. She meets Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), an aloof, arrogant, yet undeniably handsome bachelor. The two of them spend ball after ball pointedly critiquing each other’s flaws, but each of them eventually begins to develop an unconscious admiration for the other. When it appears that Darcy has deliberately interfered in a budding courtship between Liz’s sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) and Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), however, Liz rudely rejects him, swearing she will never stoop to dealing with him again. Both must overcome their inner pride if they ever want their love to work.

The first thing you notice about P&P is that it wants to be romantic – coquettish, passionate, sweep-me-off-my-feet romantic. Wright tries to appeal to the innocent teenager in all of us; the movie abounds with fluid panoramic shots of majestic English landscapes and the hesitantly rising Sun, just to underscore the charged emotions moving Liz and Darcy. Moreover, instead of having the prim and proper atmosphere so common to movies about historical England, the movie takes on a heavily personal and subjective feel. We see and judge Darcy not with the objective lens of a camera, but always through the youthful eyes of Knightley’s heroine. In many places, the secondary characters all but slip into the background, leaving us to reckon with Liz and her confused feelings alone.

This approach to P&P has the intimacy and individual focus to hold our interest. If only the Liz Bennet it eagerly portrays weren’t so fake. Knightley does a good job obeying the directions set out in the script, but Austen would have had a hard time recognizing her. Her critiques of Darcy in the first half, far from suggestive of any kind of dislike, come off instead as naive banter. And her private struggles in the second half, however individualized, have all the subtlety of the world-weary woes of an emo teenager, not the proud, sociable, headstrong woman Austen created. The Liz on-screen lurches back and forth between flippant immaturity and histrionic angst, never finding that equilibrium of mind and heart that sets her apart from her sisters.

The other half of the central story line, Mr. Darcy, fares little better. Matthew Macfadyen has the impassive face, handsome looks, and upright posture, but his Darcy lacks bite. Even his most piercing reprimands have an incongruous elegance to them, as if he has never felt an ounce of real anger in his life. Instead of disdainful or icy, he appears merely introverted and completely harmless, hardly someone you could spend half a novel disliking on any level. Because of this, the various conflicts and reconciliations he supposedly undergoes with Knightley never feel genuine. We are forced to rely on the word of the screenwriter that the two of them have reason to hate or love at all.

As for the rest of the movie, the large parts of the book Wright cut and altered outweigh whatever feelings of warm familiarity we get from his reinterpretation. Aside from Mrs. Bennet’s empty gossiping, most of Austen’s vicious social satire, the real meat behind these romances, has been unceremoniously removed. All but gone, too, are the subplots involving Jane and Mr. Wickham, both of whom play pivotal roles in our understanding of Liz’s character. A series of strong supporting performances from old-timers Brenda Blethyn, Judi Dench, and Donald Sutherland doesn’t get enough time to develop either. And just to put that final nail in the coffin, the sappy closing scene feels right out of a Taylor Swift music video, a complete insult to Austen’s nuance and thoughtfulness. The instinctive appeal of focusing on one person’s inner trials adds up to little when everything around it has been squeezed dry of meaning.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a parody of Austen that, in spite of its apparent absurdity, remained surprisingly faithful to the essence of the novel. This Pride and Prejudice is its exact opposite. With his individualized approach to Liz Bennet’s story, Wright has built the roof and walls but forgotten all the bricks. He strips Liz out of her social environment and twists her character to the point of being unrecognizable, irrevocably altering the rich, layered satire and romance that make Austen so brilliant in the first place. Wright and Knightley can certainly claim their way boosted Austen’s contemporary staying power, given this movie’s decent box office returns. Yet the sacrifices they made to make her so marketable may not have been worth it. If adapting Austen means turning Liz and Darcy into retro Rose and Jack, I’d rather just stick with the undead.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Donald Sutherland, Judi Dench

Running Time: 127 minutes

Rating: PG

Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster

Directed by: Joe Wright

Written by: Deborah Moggach

Based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel of the same name. Image of Knightley/Macfadyen obtained here.