Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Posted on February 10, 2011


Let me begin with a declaration: I absolutely, absolutely ADORE this film.

The film opens as the sun rises over a misty, muddy field; it is not the picture-perfect image of the English countryside and it sets the tone for the film’s cheerfully muddy take on the trim, manicured lawns of the previous adaptations. However, that does not mean the film is not pretty to look at; in fact, it is the most gorgeous-looking Pride and Prejudice adaptation to date.

The Bennet household is a perfect example of the film’s approach. It is a warm, overcrowded, lived-in space with bonnets and ribbons, books and plants, animals and people all cheerfully and noisily living under one happy roof. One of the film’s greatest achievements is its portrayal of the Bennet family and a large part of the credit is due to the actors. It is a brilliant example of ensemble acting; they are so fantastically in sync with each other, they never miss a beat or strike a false note. The Bennet sisters esp., Lydia and Kitty are absolutely terrific—they run around the house, listen at doors, giggle at silly jokes, bicker over ribbons, and share juicy gossip—their joie de vivre is infectious and tangible.

Every character, and not just the Bennet family, is cast perfectly and every actor from top to bottom is brilliant. And while we are talking about actors, here’s another declaration: Matthew MacFadyen’s Darcy is far better than Colin Firth’s Darcy. There, I said it.

What makes MacFadyen’s portrayal authentic to me is that he beautifully brings out a certain sad tenderness that underlines Darcy’s character without compromising on Darcy’s hauteur. In MacFadyen’s Darcy, we actually see someone whose arrogance is the unfortunate consequence of trying to live up to his superior rank and overcome his terrible shyness at the same time. For evidence, look no further than the scene at Netherfield where Lizzy teases Darcy about laughing at him. Instead of summoning up all his Darcy-ness to dispel the very idea from Lizzy’s mind, he looks startled and terrified by the idea. MacFadyen’s body language is so well-tuned and perfect that not a single move or gesture is accidental or wasted—his double take when he sees Lizzy for the first time and then quickly looking away; his eagerness to strike a conversation with Lizzy and then immediately hesitating as if he’s afraid of showing too much interest; the evident sexual jealousy in the alert tilt of the head and squaring of shoulders upon hearing Lizzy mention Wickham; and the hilarious little scene where he turns with his hand on his waist and nearly decapitates Mr. Collins with his elbow.

Keira Knightley’s spunky Lizzy is a perfect match to MacFadyen’s quietly smoldering Darcy. She is an irresistible combination of beguiling charm and witty rejoinders—she knocks Darcy off his high horse and shows him that she is capable of giving back as good as she gets. For example, when Lizzy still hurting from Darcy’s infamous “barely tolerable” remark gets back at him by telling him that the best way to encourage affection is “Dancing, even if one’s partner is barely tolerable” and struts off or when Darcy, in a rare moment, confesses to her that he finds it difficult to talk to people he does not know, she archly remarks “perhaps you should follow your aunt’s advice and practice.” MacFadyen’s expression on both occasions is priceless. Keira may have been the greenest member of the cast, but she more than stands her own against stalwarts like Judy Dench and Donald Sutherland, and MacFadyen, who is a classically trained actor. Her spirited and open performance brings a vigor and daring to Lizzy that is very engaging.

However, the real star of the film is the director, Joe Wright. Of course, he had great material to build upon. Deborah Moggach’s screenplay is a triumph of storytelling economy. She peels away layers and layers of details and chips away at the plot till we arrive at a lean 2 hour narrative that retains the spirit and complexity of Austen’s story. Working with this screenplay, Wright brilliantly underlines and teases out the significance of each action and event. He makes nearly every scene in the film do double duty without making it all seem heavy-handed. For example, take the scene where Darcy, to Lizzy’s utter surprise, offers her his hand to help her into the carriage. It cuts to a superb insert shot of Darcy flexing his hand as if electrified by the touch. You can feel the crackling chemistry and significance of Darcy’s action—the seemingly proper Mr. Darcy couldn’t resist skin-to-skin contact with a woman he claimed to be “barely tolerable”. This one little insert shot tells you more about Darcy’s state of mind than a dozen shots of Darcy quietly staring at Lizzy. It is visual shortcuts like these that most adaptations lack and what allows this adaptation to cut through all the details and get straight to the heart of the matter.

Later, at Pemberley, we are again shown Darcy’s hand as Lizzy, flustered with embarrassment, refuses his offer to walk her to the inn and runs off. The scene is brilliantly set up: the camera follows Lizzy as she makes her exit and then quietly comes back and stops at Darcy’s empty, limp hand—it speaks volumes about his disappointment at her leaving him so suddenly. It is a moment of such poignant and aching beauty because it is at this moment that Darcy realizes that he is feeling left out, that he wants to be part of whatever Lizzy is doing, that he is completely and truly in love with her. And all these lovely images pay off in the final glorious scene, when Lizzy steps into Darcy’s frame, takes his hand in hers and kisses it as the sun rises behind them.

Another remarkable aspect of Wright’s direction is how completely the film mirrors Lizzy’s thoughts; this is more than just saying that a film is from this character’s point of view. The way the Bennet household and ballroom sequences are filmed is markedly different from the scenes at Rosings Park and Netherfield Hall, while the Pemberley visit has a hypnotic rhythm of its own.

With the former, the camera is an invisible member of the family or a curious guest through whose eyes we see the story unfold. Two standout examples are the superb Netherfield ball and the family dinner with Mr Collins, where the Bennets exchange sly glances and take turns at mocking Mr Collins. The Netherfield ball is something of a virtuoso sequence—it is bookended by two graceful long takes that provide a sort of before-and-after commentary (and must have taken days and days of rehearsals to perfect). The highlight of the ball is the dance between Lizzy and Darcy where we see the world from their view and realize that they are only conscious of each other—everyone else has disappeared.

The scenes at Rosings and Netherfield are very self-consciously framed. The formality of these scenes have a touch of absurd and artifice; take, for example, the comic tableau at Rosings where Darcy, Col. Fitzwilliam and Collins stand like mannequins in front of Lady Catherine de Burgh or the symmetrical perfection of the drawing room walk at Netherfield.

Contrast these with the sheer elegance and fluidity of the gorgeous sculpture room sequence at Pemberley. Interestingly, in this sequence, Lizzy, who is otherwise always dressed in earthy, dark colors, is wearing a white dress—it is almost as if she is a part of the world of Pemberley and has blended in beautifully.

No self-respecting discussion of a Pride and Prejudice adaptation is complete without a comparison of the two proposals. As with everything else, Wright and his actors do a brilliant job with both of the scenes. The first proposal is a literally stormy one, with tempers and passions flaring. I particularly like the way the scene ends with Darcy and Lizzy, having spent all their anger, finding that they are literally breathing into each other’s face; in fact, Darcy makes what looks like a move to kiss Lizzy but stops and withdraws, leaving Lizzy physically reeling from anger and the closeness of the encounter.

The second proposal is quite easily the most romantic scene that’s not in any Austen book but should have been—yes, and that includes the much-maligned choked, stammering declaration of love. It’s about two people who couldn’t sleep all night thinking about each other, wondering whether they will get a second chance, and discovering that they are not suffering alone or in vain. There is something terribly vulnerable about both of them wandering in the morning mist, still in their nightdress, too distracted to have changed or care. Unlike the first proposal, which takes place between two social unequals; here, they meet as equals in love—they are both literally and figuratively stripped of all markers of their position and wealth, the only thing they are left with is the love they feel for each other. It is such a beautiful condensation and presentation of the idea in the book that frankly, I am always surprised when people complain that the film puts in things Austen never intended.

The film ends the way it began—on a beautiful morning with an enchanting piano score by Dario Marianelli and love in the air. Sigh!

Posted in: Appreciation