In a nineteenth century world in which women’s roles in society were quite restricted, Jane Austen was a feminist. Her personal letters, biographies, and novels illustrate her belief in a woman’s independence, equality, and the right to pursue personal happiness and fulfillment.
This theme of feminism comes shining through in the latest film adaptation of her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Fitzwilliam Darcy.
The newest version of Austen’s novel is a less restrained, gutsier take on this classic tale. As a testament to her enduring popularity, the public hungers for more Austen; new film adaptations of her life and work are still being created to satisfy her followers. In the summer of 2007, Anne Hathaway stars as Jane Austen herself in Becoming Jane, which shows how Jane’s own life was the greatest inspiration for her novels.
I’ll admit I’m something of a purist when it comes to Jane Austen. A sentimental favorite of mine is the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. The A & E miniseries is considered by many to be the most faithful version of the novel, and Colin Firth has become synonymous with Mr. Darcy (Jennifer Ehle played Elizabeth in A & E’s production.) Firth is so identified with Darcy that he even inspired his own “spin off”: the character of Darcy in the much loved novel Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Sitting down to view this DVD version, I wasn’t expecting it to break any new ground for me. It didn’t help that the novel’s classic opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” is omitted from the film. This line sums up the world view of Austen’s time: there was a “marriage market” for women who did not have independent means, and the only viable option for financial and personal security was to find a wealthy husband and “marry well.” (Jane Austen and her “alter ego” Lizzy Bennet were rebels because they rejected the prevailing views of the day; they both believed that men and women were equals and that a woman should only marry for love.)
The classic opening line may be missing here, but the film opens just as the novel does, with Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) imploring her husband Mr. Bennet (the long suffering Donald Sutherland) to call on Mr. Bingley. Bingley, a wealthy young man who has just moved into their neighborhood of Hertfordshire, might prove to be a suitable husband for one of their five unmarried daughters.
Mr. Bennet visits Bingley, soon the young ladies are off to the ball, and earlier film versions of the novel faded into the background as I found myself pulled deeper into this story. The fun begins as elder sisters Jane and Elizabeth encounter Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy at the country dance. The lovely Jane (played with grace and charm by the pitch perfect Rosamund Pike) and amiable Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) hit it off immediately; things are much rockier for Ms. Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Darcy’s refusal to dance with Lizzy, a slight that demonstrates his immense sense of pride, instantly ignites the prejudice within her, setting the comedy of manners in motion.
The drama builds as we learn that Mr. Bennet’s estate will be “entailed” on a distant relation, leaving his unmarried daughters penniless unless they figure out a way to marry a man who can provide for them. (In Austen’s time, women were routinely barred from inheriting property.)
In a thrilling scene, gutsy Elizabeth, as played by Knightley, turns down the marriage proposal of Mr. Collins, her distant relative who stands to inherit the family estate. The stakes are quite high here. By holding out for true love, and sticking to her sense of right and wrong, Lizzy forfeits the family estate and might very well end up in poverty. This scene is very faithful to the novel itself. Knightley imbues Elizabeth with a sense of conviction and moral principles that make her acts of rebellion seem very sympathetic to the audience.
Austen was twenty-one years old when she began work on Pride and Prejudice, and her heroine Elizabeth is herself a very young woman. Keira Knightley puts her own imprint on Lizzy. She brings an authority to the role, displaying a maturity far beyond her years.
Matthew Macfadyen is a revelation as the iconic Mr. Darcy. He is less imposing and more delicate and vulnerable in his portrayal than either Rintoul or Firth. This is a kinder, gentler Mr. Darcy for the new millennium, who manages to convey as much with a soulful glance or a longing look as he does with Austen’s exquisite dialogue. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then Macfadyen’s provide us with a clear view into the mind and heart of Darcy.
His love for Lizzy is quite evident in his marriage proposal, and his anguish is obvious as she rejects him. The director’s choice to stage this scene in a driving rainstorm is a clever artistic device, and the setting differs from the proposal in the novel. However, the torrent of rain echoes the character’s stormy emotions and adds an interesting dimension to this pivotal scene.
How Lizzy and Darcy resolve their differences, come to terms with their “pride and prejudice,” and find their way into each others arms, is the heart of the novel and the film. Along the way, both Knightley and Macfadyen find individual moments to shine.
Late in the movie, a pivotal scene between Lizzy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (the redoubtable Dame Judi Dench) crackles with tension. In this scene, Austen’s theme of equality is driven home as Lady Catherine demands that Elizabeth refuse any current (or future) marriage proposals from her nephew Darcy, because of the young woman’s inferiority and lack of connections. Ms. Bennet has self esteem and a backbone, and will make no promises to refuse any proposals. It is clear that Elizabeth Bennet views herself as the equal to any woman or man. The incandescent Knightley certainly proves herself an actress capable of holding her own with the Oscar winning Dench; she commands attention and respect and you can’t take your eyes off her in this scene.
Viewers of this latest version of Pride and Prejudice should be aware that some artistic license has been taken, and there are points of departure with Austen’s novel. For instance, Austen clearly depicts Lizzy’s father as someone who has been unsuccessful as a husband and father. The novel states that Mr. Bennet married in haste and soon fell out of love with his wife; also, his behavior as a husband causes Lizzy pain. However, Donald Sutherland portrays him here as a loving husband with a warm, affectionate relationship with his foolish and frustrating wife (Blethyn, who is quite effective as Mrs. Bennet.) I found this to be a jarring inconsistency, but decided to go with the flow of an otherwise lovely, satisfying film.
Also a bit disturbing was the depiction of Mr. Bingley, who comes across as quite unappealing. In the novel, Bingley is described as charming and amiable, but lacking resolution. Here he is seen as simpering and somewhat vacuous, often bordering on caricature.
But these are minor criticisms from an Austen purist. The film also has much to offer with its terrific production values. There are stunning views of the English countryside, and the film is shot in a way that is haunting and ethereal.
In conclusion, while not entirely faithful to the author’s intentions, this latest film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a delight: worth viewing for its lovely production values, excellent acting, and a gutsy feminist Austen heroine who brings a more modern sensibility to this classic story.