Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 06, 2005 1:09 am 
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It's fun but it's not Jane Austen

"Pride and Prejudice (1940) -- This literate movie is a reasonably faithful transcription of Jane Austen's sparkling comedy of manners…..but when Jane Austen's characters are brought to life at M-G-M, all is changed -- broadened. Animated and bouncing, the movie is more Dickens than Austen…"

That's Pauline Kael on the 1940 Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson version with "that great old dragon Edna May Oliver, as Lady Catherine."

Kael's description of the 1940 movie works pretty well as a template for the new Keira Knightley-Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice. This time the "old dragon" is Judi Dench. We can't say Wright's version belongs to Darcy, because it hasn't got Olivier: Matthew MacFayden is strong enough, but no Olivier. The movie belongs, as it should, to Elizabeth Bennett, and hence to the charming, pretty Keira Knightley. It's also, like the 1940 one, "changed -- broadened…animated and bouncing."

"More Dickens than Austen" won't work, and the recent critic exaggerated a bit who said this new movie is Austen "Brontëfied," and so did the one who called it "a film that turns Jane Austen's nimble satire into a lumbering gothic romance." But they're all onto something -- something that's not there.

Not quite Brontëfied or Gothic, this new Pride and Prejudice has definitely been romanticized, and more than that it's had the essential elements of Jane Austen taken out. Austen's elaborate irony and rational thinking, and most of her beautiful and elegant sentences -- the essence of her books -- are all excised in favor of bouncy dancing and vivid color photography and nice-looking people -- very nice-looking ones with nice period clothes who more often than not overlap voices Altman style or just interrupt each other.

And since we don't have to hear all that's said, the gaps are filled in with surging strings and powerful piano music, music no instrument in 1821 could have come close to matching. These movie ladies sit down to their little period pianofortes -- and out comes Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing a modern Steinway concert grand. True, Jane Austen lived at a time when a lot of the great classics were composed, but she lived in the country, far from a symphony orchestra, and it's unlikely she heard anything but a little Hayden and Mozart, maybe, and minor English composers and some Italian songs, all played on an instrument with a relatively very limited sound. And of course though the ladies may have been accomplished, they were not Jean-Yves Thibaudets.

The looks are pumped up too, like the sound. The young men are all so handsome or cute the country balls come out looking like ads for Ralph Lauren or Abecrombie & Fitch. The economic levels are exaggerated, so you can't grasp the delicate details of income that are so important in Austen's novels. Lady Catherine's house is as grand as Buckingham Palace, and Darcy's is very nearly that grand. His estate as we see it here would easily have made him one of the half dozen richest men in England. His mansion has a huge sculpture gallery in it like a major room of the British Museum, and the other rooms are decorated with murals that look like the Vatican. At the other extreme, the Bennett girls' surroundings are taken from the Squire in Fielding's Tom Jones as represented in Tony Richardson's movie, with pigs coming into the house, and Mr. Bennett always, always, needing a shave.

The irony -- there is one irony, though not in the movie -- is that you can't really make a movie of Jane Austen. Her books are easily visualized on film. Moviemakers can come up with the costumes and the sets. But her books aren't essentially visual. They're all about prose style, and the turns of phrase that make one think, sentences that flow gently and come down easy, catching you unawares so you may have to read them again, sentences that delineate the development of character through thought and experience with infinite clarity and subtlety. On screen, that development is there, but it's visual. It just happens. The camera just focuses on Ms. Knightley, thinking. But in Jane Austen it happens with words. Ultimately that isn't cinematic. So you can't make a Jane Austen movie without taking out the Jane Austen. Why do people do it, then? Well, people just like to make movies of her books, I guess -- and people like to watch them.

Joe Wright's film is fun, but it isn't a masterpiece -- or Jane Austen. The directing largely isn't there, not in Jane Austen's terms: character development. Nobody really develops. Mathew MacFadyen is a young man who looks glum, and he looks that way all through. He doesn't really seem haughty and nasty at first, just like a man who can't dance. Keira Knightley is charming -- so is Simon Woods as Bingley, which is fine, because that's all he needs -- but she isn't sharp and she doesn't come through as a keen intelligence or a woman who is transformed. What Joe Wright's good at is getting a bouncy, sweaty bunch of good-looking people out on a dance floor in a stately home, and walking folks across pretty English landscapes. Walks in Jane Austen are about talk, or economics, like everything else. But in Joe Wright's film they're about sweeping strings and Chopin. Everybody is too nice, except the tiresome Mrs. Bennett -- though Brenda Blethyn is okay, not a caricature as some have said. My regret is that Donald Sutherland's smiley and weepy Mr. Bennett isn't drier and more ironic. Like everybody else in the movie, except Lady Catherine, he's been made likeable, at the expense of Jane Austen's wit.

Pride and Prejudice, 129 mins., directed by Joe Wright and adapted by Deborah Moggach with additional dialogue by Emma Thompson, first shown in Hamburg, Amsterdam and , debuted at the Toronto Festival September 2005, US wide release 23 November 2005.

FOOTNOTE. Notes from contemporary academe.
My comment about the fundamental untranslatability of Jane Austen to film was cited in a 2005 M.A. thesis at the University of Missiouri, "'This Is Not Dickens': Fidelity, Nostalgia, and Adaptation," by Kristin Spooner, where she quotes from my review as posted on the Internet Movie Database and refers to me as "citizen critic 'Chris Knipp,'" as if my name were an online "handle."

Also found online is "Jane Austen on Film: Or How to Make a Hit," a "review-essay" by Ellen Moody, modified from an earlier piece in a scholarly journal, summarizing and critiquing eight essays in a special Jane Austen Goes to the Movies monograph collection of Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts responding to the spate of post-1995 Jane Austen films. Lots of contrasts seem to emerge between Austen and the movies and between the older and newer adaptations, in these summarized essays. Moody herself argues that recent adaptations are flashier and more star-studded than the old ones, but that they all yield to the movie audience's hunger for action and visuals over the quiet inner elements central to the novels. Moody comments knowledgeably about the analysis of films and studies and cross-references the monograph essays and the old and new films in detail. She may be right that the new Austen adaptations use more "technology" and "high-profile" actors than the 1970-1995 ones to increase the audience, but this neither adds to nor subtracts from their merits as literary adaptations. Considering the 1940 Pride and Prejudice less "high profile" seems questionable, since it featured Greer Garson, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Laurence Olivier and the screenwriters included Aldous Huxley. Moody's summary of what Austen's all about is hardly a revelation: "I would argue that on the most fundamental level, Austen's novels are made up of stories which slowly and quietly emerge from the inner life and circumstances of a group of intimately- connected characters."

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