Saturday, March 18, 2006

austensible drama

Pride and Prejudice, after opening in major cities all over the world, was at last allowed into the hallowed cinemas of Hyderabad, lately voted the center of the universe, owing to all the infotech offices and Dubya’s three-hour stopover and other such signifiers of awe and wonder. I don’t doubt the jealous bastards out of Bangalore and Bombay will be leaving a huge-ass wooden horse outside the city any day now because we are so important. Moreover, Hyderabadis chose to express superior taste by not showing up for the film at all, evidently having better things to do on a Friday night than sit around and schmooze, converse or suck face in a movie hall – actually watching the film being, as most experts agree, a stupid thing to do.

Being uncool, however, I did manage to catch almost enough of it to form vague impressions of parts I liked, parts I did not like, and parts that I failed to enjoy. I fell prey to the whole identifying-with-Elizabeth thing that millions of people do the world over, and which immediately annoyed me because I will never look like Keira Knightley, no matter how dark and shapeless her fashions or how windswept her hair. It is true that Darcy fell in love with her for her brains and not her looks, but that never mattered either because I never cared much for Darcy except as an escape from her irritants for Liz.

Until this film.

A Byronic hero is lovable only up until you hope he chokes and dies on his entitlement complex. While Darcy, at least, does not fall into the mould of the reprehensible Mr. Rochester, he remains a stuffy prick, not helped along by the delicacy of Jane A’s language, or the fact that everything he does always comes down to how much money he has. (imho, imho.) I don’t think Colin Firth was the best person to explore Darcy’s vulnerabilities, because, with all due respect, Colin Firth being vulnerable makes him look like he’s swallowed three rubber ducks for breakfast instead of his customary two. On the other hand – and there is no way to say this but quickly – Matthew McFayden is simply scrummy. He looms over the landscape; he has untidy hair, and sticks out like a sore thumb. His social challenges are offset by his swinging between dignified sarcasm (the ‘wtfamidoinghere?’ moments when Caroline is hitting on him are priceless) and dignified haplessness (when Elizabeth is not hitting on him, the saucy minx.). He is totally Elizabeth’s bitch, in short.

NB: My ideas of romance are not warped. YOUR ideas of romance are warped.

What really struck me about the film, however, was the calculatedly authentic setting. The Bennet farm was immediately striking; the animals, the jostling for space, the table manners, the simple facts of living before ideas of personal space and privacy had developed overmuch. I thought the Bennet household was brilliantly taken, a study in familial chaos that is practically universal. Totally resonates for someone who’s never had a room of her own. And I was even more impressed by the interlude at Pemberley. The terrible Augustan art, the faux-Grecian statues, the background music – everything spoke brilliantly of a time and place; where Beethoven was still twenty-seven years old and the Lyrical Ballads yet to be published. I fawned over that sequence. It’s central to P and P in so many ways because it clearly ties up the idea of big house + posh gardens making a ‘material difference’, in Lizzy’s own words, to her sentiments about Darcy, and that translated so well in the film – Elizabeth’s looking at the classical nudes was a great way to depict the dawning-realisation/awakening-sexuality thing. It’s a pity it wasn’t reinforced more in the rest of the screenplay, but it would have been difficult at any rate.

[digression: Although art and architecture tend to matter far more in Henry James than in Jane Austen, it’s exciting because it reminded me of Wings of the Dove, the only film I’ve ever loved in spite of being compelled to study it; the filmmakers moving the storyline of Wings ten years ahead so that they could make a point using Klimt paintings was divinely inspired. Please do watch it if you get the chance; it’s the one with naked Helena Bonham-Carter on the back cover, because they realized how slim their chances of selling an idiosyncratic, nudity-free adaptation of James’ most difficult novel to the junta were.]

Still, turning good novels into great screenplays is hardly impossible, and it does hurt in that the filmmakers found it necessary to transform a comedy-of-manners into a farce in more than one place, including all of the scenes involving the Collinses and quite a few with Bingley, played by someone who looked vaguely like Paul Bettany and then distracted me with the thought of Paul Bettany in an Austen film. This one definitely has none of the sensitivity and the cogency of the Ang-Lee/Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility, but it still far from what I’d call a failure. In fact, I think I will grab the DVD. When I get around to having a DVD player. I have a feeling it’ll look great on the small screen.

current musix: adagio, moonlight sonata – beethoven. the story goes that this piece was so beloved even during his lifetime that ludwig was prompted to grump, ‘surely I’ve written better things.’ wonder if jane austen ever felt that way about p and p.

p.s. I forgot to add, there is Judi Dench! Who is, well, Judi-Dench-er than ever before.


  1. I cant nod my head more in agreement :)
    Btw will film makers look at other books and stop fawning over pride n prej

  2. roswitha,

    the reprehensible mr. rochester? how deeply you wound!!! personally, i would take rochester over darcy anyday!


  3. @ saaphire: I don't know, I think P and P is one of those books that always stands up to adaptation and examination. But yes, there are lots of things I'd love to see on film - and I'd love to see in theatres here, for a change.

    @ neela: I'm so sorry. It's a highly personal opinion. I never did think he was great shakes, but then I watched the Joan Fontaine-Orson Welles adaptation, and that just left me with an eternal fiery hate for him. Imagine Welles' frog-eyes bulging out of the Rochesterian sockets!