Toil, tears, and sweat: The unlikely beauty of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice

In college, a favorite debate among my friends was over which adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was superior: the 1995 BBC miniseries, or Joe Wright’s 2005 film? The public consensus usually seems to be the miniseries. This is understandable. Its 327 minute runtime allows it to more thoroughly cover the breadth of Austen’s novel. It has charming performances and is as faithful to its source material as one could imagine an adaptation being.

And yet it’s Wright’s film I find myself returning to again and again. Its opening shots are what convince me, every time, that this is how Austen ought to be adapted, and how her books rarely are. We meet the characters in a rush. They are lively, hair tousled, faces sweaty, the sort of traces of dust and dirt on their skin and clothing that appear after one gives up appearing tidy in front of their family at around midday. No attempt is made to quote or evoke the legendary opening lines of the book. I won’t quote it here because you know them, I know them, and the last person you spoke to today knows them too. The movie knows that we know them. Quoting them would be a matter of course, something perfunctory and expected.

But how often do we think about those words? How charmingly conversational they are. Austen disarms us by jumping headlong into the nuts and bolts of the story; in her bluntness, she makes us feel at home. The opening to this film has the same effect. I have four sisters and a brother. I grew up always an arm’s length from at least three cats and a dog. I cherish fictional homes that clatter with the the sort of perpetually awake half-chaos I grew up immersed in. Joe Wright’s vision of Pride and Prejudice matches mine.

So, too, does Keira Knightley’s take on Lizzie Bennet. Watching the film again recently, I was taken aback by her ferocity. There are many ways to play Lizzie Bennet. Jennifer Ehle’s take was drier, her wit more for her own amusement than for weaponry. Knightey uses words like a sniper. They are her first plan of attack, and she is always ready to open fire. Knightley’s performance puts a charge into the film that Wright uses to propel the narrative.

There is a headlong urgency to this film. It’s too easy to say it feels rushed; if anything, this suits the material. The tone is set the moment Brenda Blethyn, as Mrs. Bennet, realizes that a window has opened for one of her daughters to be married. She pursues setting up her daughters (primarily her eldest, Jane) with a relentlessness that comes from true desperation; they are poor and have no inheritance coming their way, meaning that good marriages are the main source of security for her daughters’ futures. She buzzes with energy in every scene she’s in. Her contrast to her husband (Donald Sutherland) is amusing, but his comparative aloofness serves the narrative as well. He seems to be coasting, hoping for as little stress as possible in his older years, unable to keep up with the pace of his family. When Lizzie comes to him at the end with the announcement that she loves Mr. Darcy, he is about four steps behind everyone else.

Period films rarely resemble a time and place in which people lived. They usually represent a vision through a modern lens, either romanticized or a deliberate deconstruction of romance. Wright attempts neither here; he aims for realism, and succeeds. The Bennet household is constantly in movement. Animals wander in and out of the frame. Lizzy’s youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone- this movie was astoundingly prescient in casting young stars before they took off), seem to have learned sprinting before walking, dashing from room to room. Her middle sister, Mary, is glued to the piano. Despite her practicing, she is quite bad. The Bennets have quite a lot in common with the Sycamore family from You Can’t Take it With You. Both families have little use for convention and want simply to lead happy lives, pursuing their personal interests. They also have some trouble adapting when those conventions are thrust upon them. In the cheerfully un-capitalist world of Kaufman and Hart’s play, the the Sycamores always get by, rejecting currency and drawing anyone willing to listen into their lifestyle. In Austen’s world, male primogeniture isn’t so easily brushed over.

Finding a way through the quagmire of societal mores that reject the Bennets’ lifestyle is one of this story’s most potent sources of drama. Wright vividly highlights the contrast between the Bennets’ world and those of the Darcys and Bingleys of the world. Wright is perhaps a bit too fond of tracking shots, especially the type that call great attention to themselves. But in this film, a long tracking shot does its job well, swerving through a house during a ball as the Bennets attempt to make it through a ball at Bingley’s estate. The tracking shot condenses a lot of story material into a sequence of a few minutes, far more than enough time to take in everything that Darcy ends up objecting to. Our greater knowledge of this family makes us sympathetic to them, but empathy for Darcy’s view is essential for this story. The shot keeps things centered on the action. Rather than seeming like a shortcut, the camera turns voyeuristic. Not in a prurient sense, but rather like Kitty and Lydia frantically going from room to room looking for gossip material.

Jane Austen films so rarely move like this.  Austen’s prose is awake. When her characters aren’t speaking, Austen is moving them like chess pieces, setting up as many interesting encounters between characters as she can until the story is spent. On the DVD commentary for the film, Wright said he wanted to make the film as subjectively from her perspective as possible. We meet characters when she does. Major story beats (Bingley’s apparent rejection of Jane, Darcy’s sudden proposal, Whickam running off with Lydia) hit with such pace as to leave her breathless. Even the film’s indulgences (cinematographer Roman Osin makes constant use of how the magic hour looks on the English countryside) coincide with Lizzie’s emotions. When we take in a wide view of a cliffside, she is doing the same thing. It’s a moment to breathe for the audience, and no doubt the same for her. Likewise, a trip to Mr. Darcy’s gargantuan estate feels hushed and overwhelming. It’s a startling contrast in the difference between his wealth and Lizzie’s relative poverty, and yet the sheer beauty of it is itself breathtaking.

Matthew Macfadyen makes no attempt to make Mr. Darcy a heartthrob, and that is right for this film. It is invested in Lizzie’s perspective, it would be a mistake to make him immediately attractive, to make the audience swoon before Lizzie works through her dislike of him. Macfadyen plays Darcy as well-intentioned and socially awkward, woefully ill-equipped to match Lizzie’s initial weaponized verbal contempt. His proposal to Lizzie, and his reaction to her rejection, contains some splendidly subtle acting. Tom Hollander, as the hopelessly stiff Mr. Collins, also nails a scene where Lizzie rejects a marriage proposal. Mr. Collins is a uniquely Austenian character, and Hollander’s performance is equally unique. And somehow, Wright landed Judy Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role demands the sort of authority and spite that Dench can deliver in her sleep. Casts this deep are a luxury. The give every scene the opportunity to be memorable.

The BBC miniseries does cover far more of the novel. In many ways, television is an ideal format for adapting novels if your aim is to adapt as much of the written word as possible. However, Wright’s film captures the spirit of Austen more than any other adaptation I’ve seen. Above all else, it is a delight. This is not just a film about conversations, but the places where they take place. This story is driven by the heartbeats of characters driven by high tempers and emotions. A film like this discredits its material when it becomes a respectful recitation. Wright’s visual bombast works because it is in perfect synch with the massive emotional peaks and valleys of the story. There is a moment near the where Darcy and Lizzie have at last fallen in love, and they rest their heads together as the sun rises symmetrically between them. It’s Wright at his most self-indulgent. For this movie, it’s perfect.

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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

One response to “Toil, tears, and sweat: The unlikely beauty of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice”

  1. Nicole McLernon says :

    I remember those debates in college. 🙂

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