Sniff all you like at the Bridget Jonesfranchise, Bride & Prejudice and all other past and future rip-offs of Jane Austen's most dog-eared novel. They're all testaments to the enduring power of Pride and Prejudice as one of the most potently wishful fantasies in the female dream-book. Barring an end to the war between the sexes, we'll never see a shortfall in female demand for this particular high concept: brainy girl—pretty, but no bombshell—meets filthy-rich, granite-jawed hunk reeking of unavailability, ignores him, sasses him, tames him, marries him. Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet is the most serviceable of role models, a feminist icon who's well able to take care of herself, but who also gets to live happily ever after with a moneyed honey straight out of a Harlequin romance. Which may be why, in years of literary dish with well-read friends, I've yet to meet a woman who doesn't drool over her.
So why, in no less than five miniseries and two official film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, have we yet to encounter a satisfying screen Lizzie? From the giddy 1940 movie featuring a disastrously miscast Greer Garson (opposite Laurence Olivier) to Andrew Davies' bushy-tailed 1995 BBC crowd-pleaser (with a talented but too rosy and demure Jennifer Ehle opposite Colin Firth, who seemed to be constantly on the verge of bursting into laughter), there hasn't been a single Elizabeth Bennet that has hit the spot. In part, that's because they've all skewed too young. Though not yet one-and-twenty (an age when, in her rural corner of Regency England, unmarried damsels start rummaging through the governess want ads), Lizzie Bennet, unlike her flighty sisters, is wise, sophisticated and intellectual beyond her years. When I cast her in my head, actresses in their 30s or 40s keep popping up: ideally Emma Thompson or Juliet Stevenson; Emily Mortimer maybe; Madeleine Stowe at a pinch; even Julia Roberts, who has dry wit aplenty if only she got more opportunities to flaunt it.
If you're going to go with youth, as director Joe Wright does in his new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (now retooled, God knows why, as Pride & Prejudice), the sublimely understated Zooey Deschanel springs to mind, or sprightly, mouthy Reese Witherspoon. But Keira Knightley? Elizabeth Bennet is a watcher, not a doer, a subtle observer and coolly analytical commentator on the parochial society in which she's trapped. She's nothing if not low-key, and not even the male critics who have rushed to anoint Knightley the next big thing would call this endearing colt subtle, cool or analytical. I haven't seen Knightley in Domino, but she was a risibly ill-conceived, karate-chopping Guinevere in the very odd King Arthur and a charisma-free Lara in the British miniseries of Dr. Zhivago, though good, broad fun in Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean. But for all her creamy beauty and enthusiastic vitality, Knightley has yet to do anything I'd call acting. She's an open book who charges through every role with the same undiscriminating gusto.
In -Pride & Prejudice, Knightley plays Lizzie as, of all things, a head-tossing daddy's girl given to giggling into her pillow with her impossibly sweet-tempered sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike), while coyly batting away Darcy, a shocking stiff colorlessly played by MI5's decorative Matthew Macfadyen, who renders this supposedly deep noble as a walleyed deer caught in the headlights of Lizzie's puppyish charm. Fat chance of his Darcy ripping off his shirt and plunging into icy waters for love of a clever woman. But if Knightley and Macfadyen are in over their heads, they're deliciously supported from below by ancillary players who, with the aid of novelist Deborah Moggach's capable screenplay, do a wicked job of articulating Austen's skewering of Regency manners and morals: Donald Sutherland, a master of the dry aside, as the put-upon Mr. Bennet; Brenda Blethyn as his prattling wife, desperate to marry off her daughters before it's too late; a very funny Tom Hollander as the unctuous, social-climbing Mr. Collins, the distant relative whose only asset, courtesy of England's archaic inheritance laws, is his power to evict the Bennets should the fancy take him; Kelly Reilly as the vixenish sister of Jane's suitor, Mr. Bingley (amusingly played one notch above dimwit by Simon Wood in cockatoo hair); Talulah Riley as Lizzie's spinster-in-training sister Mary, typhoid to all earthly pleasures; and Judi Dench, looking down her nose as Lady Catherine de Bourg, the toxic snob who tries to elbow Elizabeth off Darcy's dance card.
Like other contemporary Pride and Prejudice interpreters (to put it politely)—Gurinder Chadha (Bride & Prejudice), Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones' Diary) and Beeban Kidron (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason)—Wright seizes on the novel's potential for situation comedy. And he's quite good at it, as when the pintsize Mr. Collins all but knocks on Darcy's broad back in a vain attempt to gain his attention at a social gathering; or when the over-excited Bennet sisters, having snagged their coveted invitation to take tea with the eligible Bingley, sink like a giant whoopee cushion into his groaning sofa. This is funny stuff, but it doesn't fit comfortably with Wright's bid for realist gravitas. Modeling his visual style on Roger Michell's 1995 Persuasion, which may be the smartest adaptation of an Austen novel ever made, Wright has Elizabeth wandering through muddy fields in a frumpy brown frock that does nothing to diminish Knightley's radiance, while pigs and chickens roam freely around the Bennet residence to drive home the point that this is a family mired in genteel poverty. Then there's the weather, woodenly marking shifts in emotional temperature—whenever Lizzie's fortunes flag, down comes the rain, and we see her standing on the edge of a Peak District crag, gown flapping forlornly in a keen wind. But there's only one bracing moment in the movie when all this seriousness generates something approaching insight about the plight of women in 18th-century England, and that's when Mrs. Bennet, ribbed by Lizzie for obsessing over her daughters' marriage prospects, fires back bravely with the reminder that if Lizzie had no money or rank and five female offspring to settle, she'd be up nights worrying too.
Wright is wrestling with a real flaw in Austen's novel, which wears better as satire than as character study. Austen has been credited for moving the English women's novel away from Gothic hysteria in the direction of realism, and so she did. But if it's the function of the realist novel to create plausible characters, then expand and deepen our knowledge of them until we realize we don't know them at all and can't predict what they'll do next, neither Elizabeth nor Darcy can properly be called characters. By the end of the novel both get the edges beveled, however slightly, off their respective prides and prejudices but neither one of them really changes. They're constructs, the products of the two powerful yearnings that surely moved Austen to write this novel: on the one hand, to stand, through Darcy and Lizzie, outside the property relations that imprisoned her without 500 pounds and a room of her own; on the other, to convert an economic union into something new—a love match. Elizabeth and Darcy may start out the very embodiment of the class and gender wars, but they end up its happy (and, not so incidentally, loaded) resolution. Even as I chortled at the movie's virginal ending, in which the sun rises between two sets of puckered lips, I was ecstatic to see Lizzie having her feminist cake and eating it too.
PRIDE & PREJUDICE WAS DIRECTED BY JOE WRIGHT; WRITTEN BY DEBORAH MOGGACH, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JANE AUSTEN; PRODUCED BY TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER AND PAUL WEBSTER. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.
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