We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_P&P_, 2005: Bliss it is to spend your life as Mrs Darcy · 21 November 05

My dear Fanny,

Isabel and I went to see the latest P&P yesterday. We both enjoyed it, and, as you know, I’ve written on filmic adaptations of Austen’s novels before, and more than once on this blog, the 1995 BBC P&P. This latest P&P deserves a detailed review because it makes visible the retrograde desperate dream-values of in this year 2005 and exploits modern filmic art aggressively.

My theme will be its jarring oppositions. This 2005 film differed from the previous 3 P&P films I’ve seen (1939, 1979, 1995) because it turned the comic impulses, overt way of presenting what’s happening as fairytale or fantasy, and some of Jane Austen’s own bête noirs into farce. Joe Wright (director) burlesqued the characters and story in the way Andrew Davies did Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. The acting was broad, some of the costumes theatrical toy-like and exaggeration and fast pace was one of the dominant modes. Oddly, this fit in with the attempt to show the houses, village, clothing, hair, facial skin, everything in the 18th century world to be unpolished, earthy, non-glamorous. The village street was bare dirt and inadeqaute fountains; Longbourne was peeling and inside untidy: scenes included poorly dressed unmade-up looking servants changing the wet towels. Indeed this was a wet P&P. Rained frequently and the hero and heroine were often soaking with sheer water.

Nothing wrong with farce, except a very strong impulse which dominated equally moved the other way: strong emotionalism, and high melodrama, lushly romantic glamorized scenes bathed the characters whose life in dark messy rooms alternated on screne with enchantingly lit palace mansions over oneiric lakes, off-ivory temples in green-blue forest. The camera caught looks of intense desperation on the faces of all the main characters; plangent tones, nervous gestures, eyes staring out pleading for something, the character knew not quite what. This against the incessant mockery of anyone who was not macho male, not up to the standard of beauty in this film (stick-thin arms, pretty European-elegant features, little breasts, and hair so flowing it cannot stay in its pins except when it is fixed glittering with pearls ), not ruthless and powerful, strong, silent, disdainful and with a hard mean tongue when needed.

This confused me. I didn’t know how I was to respond quite, or else I was asked to have two opposing responses. For example, Mr Collins showed up as a non-macho sensitive male (played effectively by Tom Hollander). Suddenly lines from Austen were resonating as those of an awkward, uncomfortable, gauche, very readily bullied young man who embarrassed everyone because he could not help being transparent and explaining himself and his motives endlessly. Apologizing. Austen’s Collins had menace; this Collins was a butt. When he and Charlotte are married, and Elizabeth arrives for her visit, the two young women sweep past him as Charlotte remarks she keeps him in the garden. Perhaps the problem was the speed with which these scenes and allusive remarks passed by, but I wasn’t sure if I was to jeer at Collins or feel for his humiliation, helplessness (at Lady Catherine’s house particularly) or distress and blindness.

On the intensely emotional side, the film centered revealingly on aspects of Austen’s characters I had felt from a particular passage but which passage in Austen was either understated or at the same time laced with irony and prosaic acceptance by a distancing cool narrator. There was Claudia Blakly as Charlotte Lucas defending her decision to marry Mr Collins. A long elaborate addition to Charlotte’s speech in the novel to Elizabeth became inn the film plangent aggression and accusation as Charlotte-Claudia fairly screeched at Elizabeth-Keira, "Don’t you judge Lizzie! Don’t you dare judge!" What else can plain poor unconnected Charlotte hope for?

I’ve always thought Wickham’s original story about himself made great sense and until Elizabeth chooses to read Darcy’s story as the one and only interpretation of what happened, that there was much to be said on Wickham’s side we hadn’t had a chance to look into. Standing near Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) under a tree, Rupert Friend as Wickham told a story whose tones were that of Alan Rickman recounting Colonel Brandon’s miseries in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility; later on he looked like the trapped misunderstood male as he and Lydia (Jena Malone) are brought back from Brighton in a carriage he can’t afford. This was no shallow kinky male (such as Adrian Lukis had played in 1995), drinking and bored and having sex with a chubby nymph. But then Malone was presented as a callow triumphing fool as she preened and showed off the ring. Was I supposed to sympathize with her though? Looking at the still, Malone was not exhibiting Austen’s Lydia’s "perfect unconcern," but slightly hysterical relief all the while she never looked at the partner she had had to take (the one drawback to her bargain?).

Yet the film’s opening was sheer noise and frenetic activity. No one stood still and in less than 5 minutes we were at a ball where dancing seemed to mean how loud can you stomp. Any woman not joyous at the waiting for a man to pick her out must be very strange, perhaps a prig (we see one such). Buoyant cheer was a natural state for humanity as well as meanness and arrogance, to say nothing of spite and manipulation. I’ve never seen such a sexy Caroline Bingley. Kelly Reilly (she was the young Amy in Last Orders) was a sex kitten with a bitchy tongue. Maybe she got lost on the way to The Libertine? This Caroline Bingley’s clothes announced themselves as pure "whore"—they would not have been out of place in some remake of Forever Amber. So too her perpetually pouting lips and the blonde single curl lingering down her neck. All Lady Disdain she. Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth responded to Tom Hollander’s Mr Collins as some tomboy callow girl would some nerdish jerk; he doesn’t even know how to eat his gleaming potatoes.

Is Mrs Bennet (a weary sharp-faced with her hands covered in powder and a dress no self-respecting chambermaid would wear) an irritating fool whose shallowness has blighted her husband’s inner soul, and is responsible for her daughter Lydia’s crass obtuseness, or a hurt betrayed put-upon woman right to have a nervous breakdown when Lydia runs off with Wickham without so much as a bye-your-leave. The film audience is allowed to watch Brenda Blethyn writhe in the bedroom while she waits for her husband to return. As a member of WWTTA remarked, "Mr and Mrs Bennet are somehow more believable as a couple in this version than in others I’ve seen, even though they are so far apart." One funny dialogue in Austen’s P&P where Mr Bennet suggests Jane and Bingley will be forever fleeced and get into debt because they are so good-natured, and Mrs Bennet objects they have too much money to get into trouble, is filmed with Sutherland and Blethyn lying comfortably in bed together, side-by-side.

Perhaps these extremes I’m talking about are seen most graphically in Mr Bennet (Donald Sutherland). I’ve never seen Mr Bennet done so bitterly. I loved it. This is the way I have read his lines since I first read P&P at age 12. His face is among the more intensely desperate of the group. But equally Deborah Moggach’s (the screenplay writer) Mr Bennet has a way of dissolving into tears. Who expected this? His cruel public insult of Mary Bennet’s terrible playing was raw in this film, but moments later we saw the plain and shattered Talulah Riley (she is listed second on IMDB) as Mary folded into his arms as he comforted her. I loved the way the film showed real sympathy for Mary Bennet: when she returned from that goddawful goddamn ball she buried herself in her music. But Mr Bennet weeping with joy at his "little Lizzie’s" being in love at the close of the film. And the writer and director did stigmatize Mary for being a reading girl (she’s even the most flat-chested of the young women in the movie): her face was made plainer, and her dress dull.

I did like the way the camera equally dwelt on the miserable looking Lady Anne de Bourgh (Rosamund Stephen). This Miss de Bourgh, plain and uncomfortable, looked unhappy. Austen gives us little to feel beyond a kind of unexamined spite towards these two non-beauties. I’ve excused Austen for stigmatizing Mary so by remembering the first version of P&P was written in 1796 when Austen was 21.

What was the attitude towards women in this film? To a woman all the young ones were at risk of anorexia1. Many bones showing up in their shoulder blades and small breasts. To a woman all the older ones were rotound and full-breasted. Some of Mr Bennet’s best lines (e.g., sarcasms over Wickham) were given to Knightley—indeed she was given a large number or hard ones. The beauties in the film seemed to have steely wires attached to their hearts—where the rest of us have veins. No wonder Matthew MacFaydyen’s eyes melted in yearning and distress; how else reach her? Keighley’s acting and dress, body stance and make-up seemd to combine the Mary Crawford of Rozema’s film with the Molly in the 1995 Wives & Daughters, though she was dressed like Jennifer Ehle and had many of the same lines, one similar outfit, and ran about as excitedly.

I’d read that there was hardly any Austen language in this new film. Not so, or no less than the others I’ve seen. What was different was different sets of speeches were chosen. Several interchanges between Mr B and his daughters, social meanness and discomfort and witty interchanges I’d never seen brought into a film were there. Collins’s proposal was longish. And much of the first Darcy-Elizabeth set-to was there. Yes they were being drenched against a background which reminded me of Prior Park and its ivory bridge, but the powerful passion of both were voiced through Austen’s words. A different criteria for choice of speech was at work in this film than I’ve ever seen for a P&P before and it was not wild romance (as in Wuthering Heights), but social satire of a biting alienated sort.

Towards the end of the film the intense emotionalism and romance took over, the plangent drowned out all else. When MacFadyen as Darcy emerged from that mist in a great overcoat (very like the one Colin Firth wore too, as were other parts of McFadyen’s wardrobe, making me wonder about the capacity of local costume and robe departments), I was as enthralled as Keira-Elizabeth. The primordial strong yet anguished male Himself.

What are these added-on few minutes said to have been included in the US film and excluded in the UK? We see MacFadyen and Knightey in a lush green landscape sitting face-to-face on a sort of ivory round platform. They wonder what names they will use to address one another in different moods—really what he will sue to namel her. When he is most deliriously in love with her, he will not call her Lizzie or Elizabeth or "my pearl," but Mrs Darcy. Oh, says she, in ecstasy. Repeat it again. And he does. Over and over again. Mrs Darcy. Mrs Darcy. Mrs Darcy2. She almost can’t stand it so strong is the joy. (Reminding me of when in Austen’s novel Mrs Bennet realizes Mr Darcy will marry Elizabeth and he has 10,000 pounds a year and thus Jane’s is nothing to it, just think of the carriages …. she shall go mad!) This substitutes for the obligatory wedding scene these adaptations of 19th century high status films just about always include—whether or not there was one in the original. The tone of the scene was sweet and kind. It reminded me of one in a later 17th century play by Congreve, only Congreve’s couple share disillusions.

Choices of what to keep in a film from the eponymous novel and
what to omit are what you look at. I’ve published three times now on filmic adaptations of novels and discovered studies show most films drop 73% of the original book; less than 37% of the novel’s own scenes survive. This film included in the remarkably brief sequence covering Lydia’s elopement without marriage Lydia flaunting her ring. It really was central and repeated in three brief scenes. Small diamond (anachronistic of course). Lydia tells Jane Jane must go in the room after her for she is the married woman now and Jane the old maid. Then when Lydia leaves we get all three lines from Austen about how her sisters may write her for they will have nothing to do while she may not write back for "married women" are always "too busy."

As with the 1995 P&P Bingley was boyish, eager, and innocent; however, unlike that film (and Austen), he gets down on his knee to ask Jane to marry him and confesses himself to have been a "ass." Nothing like this in Austen. We don’t witness the proposal nor the yes yes yes Rosamund Pike as Jane utters repeatedly, very like Molly in Wives and Daughters—the source is of course Joyce’s wet-dream of a Molly who spends her life saying yes yes yes yes fuck me fuck me fuck me fuck me.

But here it’s legitimate: you will get to spend your life as Mrs. Do take his name. Don’t be a fool. Consider the magnificent house. Mrs Collins (Charlotte Lucas that was) tells Lizzie she has achieved the real goal and aim of her life: to have control (own) your own room and sit in it. (In this film Darcy is the only character who does not call Elizabeth Lizzie.)

Much was taken over from previous films. This was not different from any of the others and seems to have been conceived to replace or outdo the 1995 P&P especially. Moggach had studied the previous Austen films with care—including the non P&P ones. The gift of the piano was now Darcy to Georgiana but done in the mood of the 1995 P&P where Frank Churchill’s torturing gift to Jane (Emma) becomes sheer idyll. McFadyen was dressed to look like Firth and at times reminded me of him; Knightley looked like Ehle (except without the arched-up bosom) and she didn’t need a wig to look "right. Judi Dench was the strongest Lady Catherine de Bourgh I’ve ever seen. No heart-of-gold here. Ruthless and stern, intense. She wasn’t, though, given much room or space or time to really take an effect on our pulses and blood stream. She was all hauteur, rough, dominating, as desperate in her way as Charlotte, Collins, Mary. In the scene with Elizabeth much from Austen was kept in, but it went so fast and the words chosen harped on Elizabeth as a rebel, not a gentleman’s daughter.

The film had the same same problems as every one which takes Austen’s story of Darcy’s sudden reformation: it is not explained adequately in Austen’s text either. How can you present this changeover from an arrogant cold Darcy to an eager loving one. I thought MacFadyen did it better than Colin Firth by simply not trying. Firth tried too hard; MacFadyen was all reserve and quiet intensity before Rosings; all open need afterwards.

Kudos to Penelope Wilton who was thrown away as the best Mrs Gardiner I’ve seen—the actresses hitherto have been cloyingly, all sweet didacticism. Wilton was real, alive, complicated somehow.

Memorable scenes were filmic and image take-overs. One scene of Mrs G and Mr (Peter Wight) and Elizabeth on a mound by a tree were meant to recall a famous Gainsborough family. Suddenly, there is Keira-Elizabeth walking amidst the columns of a peeling ivory temple. It could have been a scene out of Radcliffe’s The Italian. Surreal. If the 1939 Wuthering Heights’s legacy (last scene in the 1992 Wuthering Heights with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff and Juliet Binoche as Catherine Earnshaw) was here so too were other films. The silent upon a peake is a favorite nowadays: Wives and Daughters ended on it; The Constant Gardener had several moments of this type.

Many characters looked like they hadn’t bathed in a while; Sutherland appeared to shave every 4 days at best. This sort of "realism" began with the 1995 Persuasion. Lots of movement; men on horses charging through the landscape; deep set zoom shots of luxurious landscape and long rooms filled with statues and furniture. I thought for a moment Elizabeth and the Gardiners had gotten lost in Versailles when they had meant to stay at Pemberly.

Many comparative discourses aligning eponymous novels and their filmic adaptations are imaginary discourses. Films compare to other films. The character types found in films with the names taken from the novels are character types found in other films. The techniques are those made possible by computer imaging and sound and it’s aggressive in this film.

This film makes public and manifest the dream icons pushed at women in our decade—as well as (to be fair and truthful) what the film-makers assume probably rightly (the film is making money) are the choices, acceptances, distortions, and manipulations commonly undisclosed in life and remembered in silent reading. It hurt me to see Hollander made a butt because he’s a sensitive male. It bothers me to see these superthin young women presented as what most young women are. We are not better off with the Barbie doll-wholesome buxomness of P&P either.

Is it a delusion to dream of spending your life with Mr Darcy as Mrs Darcy? The world is just not organized this way: divorce is more than probable, and older men leave their aging wives for younger women. Shall then we take what we can get from the village square, the junkyard (there was a curious frame where we seemed to see an excavated pit) and mansion? I did prefer the scene on the ivory platform to any wedding one.

To conclude, one of my favorite lines in all Elizabeth Bowen is that of the heroine remembering what she has felt with her beloved:

For naturally they did not tell one another everything. Every love has a poetic relevance of its own: each love brings to light only what is to it relevant. Outside lies the junkyard of what does not matter (The Heat of the Day, Chapter 5).

For me this was imaged in the penultimate closure of the film:

What did the characters crave in this film? Secure status and not to be emotionally isolated. I have a romantic heart myself and, like Izzy, left the film with shining happy eyes.

I fear though just as potent an element in this filmic Elizabeth’s bliss is her ability to satisfy Austen’s Mrs Gardiner’s request:

Pray forgive me, if I have been too presuming, or at least do not punish me so far, as to exclude me from P. I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low phaeton, with a nice little pair of ponies, would be the very thing (Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 3:10).

The philistine undercurrent of insistence on prudence (marry money, marry houses, marry status) in the film made me remember Scott’s objection to Austen’s Emma: Scott said he had never felt people needed to be taught to be materialistic if that was what Austen was getting at. It may be that Scott, like many another reader of Austen, allowed his response to Austen to be shaped by duller elves. Austen was for marrying for love—or, better yet perhaps, not marrying at all.

Now if you want to get into contact with Miss Austen, I recommend you get the book. Irene Sutton reads the unabridged text brilliantly for cover-to-cover cassettes. She makes plain the vulnerability and pained disillusion of Jane Bennet who would prefer to take the candid (use an 18th century dictionary to get this meaning fully) view but actually doesn’t.


1 On how this is found in other filmic adaptations of Austen’s novels, see Shannon R Wooden, "’You even forget yourself’: The Cinematic Construction of Anorexic Women in the 1990s Austen Films," Journal of Popular Culture 36(2) (Fall 2002), 221-235.

2 Miss Schuster-Slatt tells me sales of her Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma are up.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. The core of Austen’s titanic achievement is tone: the relationship of writer to (a) material and (b) reader. Strip this tone—i.e. shift medium from text to film, and all is gone. The plots of Austen’s novels, even that of the greatest, Mansfield Park, are nothing without that authorial control.

    I drifted into watching one Austen film, S&S with Linda Thompson, from flipping channels on hbo. I almost gagged at the last tableau, which showed incompatibles mutually smiling in a large wedding photograph.

    Carrol Cox
    Carrol Cox    Nov 21, 5:43pm    #
  2. Ellen,

    Marvelous. Thank you. Will enjoy reading it again after we have seen the film.

    Robert Mitchell
    Robert Mitchell    Nov 22, 12:18am    #
  3. The trailers for this new adaptation are unbearable. I can’t imagine sitting through this rebarbative film. And, by the way, I’ve already tired of Keira Knightley’s pinched face.
    R J Keefe    Nov 22, 10:51am    #
  4. Dear RJ,

    Right. I loathe trailers myself. I was trying to show how the rebarbative was continually at war with the better deeper impulses of director, screenplay writer and actors.

    I like the word "rebarbative." Thank you for offering that.

    Chava    Nov 22, 11:06am    #

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