Monday, December 12, 2011

Pride & Prejudice movie showdown.

Get your Jane Austen geek on because here is a guide to the Pride & Prejudice movies.

1940: Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.

How does this movie annoy me?  Let me count the ways.  The ditzy chickens in the hen house soundtrack is one clue that Jane Austen is turning in her grave.  I am not the first person to observe that the costumes are from the wrong time period but good Christ, the gaudy fabrics and appalling bonnets are caricatures of an uninformed mixture of styles from the 1830's through the 1860's.   It's like they hired Chris March and instructed him to design a "fantasy" Pride & Prejudice.

Jane Austen was hardly a feminist, and 1940's Hollywood certainly didn't make it a priority to portray women as anything but sex objects, but in this Pride and Prejudice, the irritating music the chatter, the giggling, the absurd costumes, the bows, ruffles and ringlets, the appalling behavior (such as the carriage race between Lady Lucas and Mrs Bennet, both in a rush to make their husbands call on Mr. Bingley first) all send the clear message that women are very, very silly creatures indeed with no object in life other than to catch a man.  Even Lizzie, who is supposed to be sensible, is only distinguished by being rather less ditzy than the other women.  Austen's works are known for lampooning the faults of human nature, but she always presents a dichotomy:  the sensible vs the idiots.  Here, all are idiots.

Laurence Olivier's D'arcy is the most genial, the least haughty of the D'arcys.  His appearance is close to how one imagines D'arcy should look.  As for Greer Garson in the role of Elizabeth, I can't get past her over-tweezed 1940's eyebrows and false freaking eyelashes.  She looks wrong and while she tries to exude the sparkling personality of the literary character, I think she mostly fails.  I just can't warm to her.   Edward Ashley as Wickham and Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins are both competent in their roles although both are too old, and it is a stretch to consider Wickham as handsome.  Lady Catherine De Burg is a horse-faced monster.  Charles Bingley gets about three seconds of screen time, and Frieda Inescort as Caroline Bingley is perhaps the strongest performance of the entire cast.

This movie does have its moments, such as the "ball" at Netherfield (a ghastly imitation of the big party at Twin Oaks in Gone with the Wind) where Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley insult each other so effectively.

1980:  Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul

The typical low-budget BBC film.  You wonder why they bothered, until you remember that when this movie was made, it had been forty years since the last adaptation.  This film is not visually exciting.  The houses are not much to look at--the Bennet's house, with its Palladian windows looks like something you'd see in an American cul-de-sac.  The costumes are uninspired and cheap.  David Rintoul way overplays Mr. D'arcy's haughtiness and seems to be always cradling a little pile of pebbles on his tongue.  Elizabeth Garvie is a likeable Lizzie, but she can't save this film.  The rest of the cast left no impression on me so we will have to conclude that their performances were forgettable.

1995:  Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle

This is the movie generally held up as the best adaptation.  It is certainly very well done and the entire cast is excellent, although I can't say I love Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth.  She's too heavy, somehow, and I don't mean fat, just a tad ponderous for someone who is supposed to be lively and playful.  Colin Firth plays Darcy as a smoldering hunk of repressed lust which is very effective, I must say.

This six-hour miniseries follows the book closely and with great accuracy.  Some of my all-time favorite scenes in movie history are here:  Sourpuss Caroline Bingley facing the horrors of Cheapside, Mr. Bennett saying, "And yet I am unmoved" in response to Mrs. Bennett's declaration that a little sea-bathing would set her up forever.  Mrs. Bennett shrieking about wedding clothes at the news of Lydia's elopement,  dimwitted Lydia asking “Where is everybody?” as she is marched up the steps of the church to her wedding, Mary informing her sisters that the loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable,  the piano scene at Pemberly, and Eliza and Darcy dancing at the ball.

Alison Steadman is the Mrs. Bennet and plays the part with comic brilliance.  No one else can touch her in this role, with her nerves, her flutterings, her scheming, her facial expressions, and a voice that drills itself into your eardrums.  Every time she opens her mouth, she says something hilarious and she manages to steal the scene even when she's just in the background..  Indeed, without her, this movie would be altogether too serious for what is supposed to be a comedy.  Benjamin Whitrow is the best Mr. Bennet of the bunch as well.  David Bamber as Mr. Collins is funny but also far creepier than I think Austen intended him to be.  Lucy Scott exerts a presence as Charlotte Lucas and Anthony Calf is charming in the small role of Colonel Fitzwilliam.  Adrian Lukis as Mr. Wickham is not handsome enough and appears shady from the beginning, which is all wrong

2005:  Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen

This is the most visually stunning of all the movies.  Everything:  the costumes, the sets, the landscapes, is gorgeous.  I love the Bennet's house in this film, which looks truly lived in.  The colors, the clutter, the laundry hanging in the back yard, the enormous pig, and the geese are all perfect.  The costumes are the best of all the P&P movies.  Some of you may say that Elizabeth's clothes are drab--and she does spend too much time bundled into a shabby old coat--but the details, the delicate prints, the simplicity are all lovely. There are no bountiful bosoms unlike the 1995 version, in which everyone displays a deep decolletage except for poor, pimpled Mary.  In this age of Victoria's Secret, birth control pills and breast implants, it's expected that all women have enormous breasts.  I'm glad no one was artificially enhanced for this movie.

A movie like this will always be judged according to how closely it follows the book, but as I watched this  P&P, I realized that if the producers had tried to create an exact retelling of Austen's novel, it would have come out as a bad imitation of the feted BBC version. This movie is a skillfully unique production. It doesn't try to live up to the BBC version, in which nearly every line comes verbatim from the book. Also, where authenticity is concerned, the Kiera Knightly version, I think, gives a more accurate picture of life in the early 1800s. The 18th century, with it's freer manners and moral standards, had barely ended when P&P takes place, and this is apparent in the new movie, both in the fashions—the young girls wear empire gowns, but the older ladies cling to the tight bodices and big hair of their own youths--and the behaviors. Yes, the manners are formal, but when Caroline Bingley wonders, at the ball, if they will all be forced to chase a piglet, you can see why she asks.  I loved the apr├ęs-ball scene, in which the Bennett family is clearly hung-over.

The cast is good too.  Brenda Blethyn is a more motherly, anxious Mrs. Bennet.  She's not as funny as Amanda Steadman, but she's more sympathetic.  Donald Sutherland is a grave and serious Mr. Bennet.  Rosamund Pike is my favorite Jane.  Jena Malone and Carey Mulligan as Lydia and Kitty look like the very young girls they're supposed to be---you can see why it is so shocking for Wickham to pick Lydia to run away with. In the BBC movie, Lydia looks more adult, and with her confident manner, it's more like she's the one taking advantage of Wickham, rather than the other way around. I'm glad Mary was allowed to be pretty in this movie--why should being bookish mean you must be ugly?  When I read the book for the first time, I was younger than any of the Bennet girls, Mary and Kitty were the characters who fascinated me, because they were peripheral to the story and thus an unknown quantity. Rupert Friend plays Wickham--a handsome Wickham at last!  Unfortunately, he's in barely three scenes.  Simon Woods is the most appealing Mr. Bingley. Tom Hollander was a good choice for Mr. Collins, who, in the book, is described as being twenty-five years old.  Why all the other movies had to make him middle aged is beyond me.  The young Mr. Collins here is perfectly ridiculous, but not creepy like David Bamber.  Kiera Knightly is not my favorite Elizabeth.  She reminds me of Winona Ryder trying to be Jo in Little Women.  (Knightly's not that bad, and she's good in the other historic roles she plays, but she just doesn't seem like a Lizzie to me.)  Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy never seems truly haughty, but instead just shy and sensitive. At the movie's opening, I thought he was all wrong, but his D'Arcy becomes more appealing as the movie progressed.  This movie has the best Elizabeth/Darcy sexual chemistry.

2008:  Lost in Austen starring Jemima Rooper and Elliott Cowan.

In this movie, Amanda Price lives in modern London, has a dull job, an oafish boyfriend and a cynical mother. Her idea of a good evening is one spent curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and a Jane Austen novel.  One day she finds Elizabeth Bennett in her bathroom, where the door behind the pipes turns out to be a conduit to the Bennett household, which Amanda enters just as Netherfield Park has been let at last.  Elizabeth stays in the 21st century, and Amanda is trapped with the Bennetts, where no one behaves quite like they do in the novel and the plot unravels in an alarming way.

I love this movie.  It's the funniest of all the P&P's and it's certainly the only Jane Austen movie you'll ever see with a reference to a pubic topiary.  Since the story goes all awry you are dying to see how it turns out--another novelty in a Jane Austen movie.  Jemima Rooper is hilarious as Amanda Price, although you can't help wondering how she maintains her artfully straightened hairstyle while living in the 19th century.  Gemma Arterton looks the most like how I imagined Elizabeth Bennet does in the novel, but since she spends most of the movie in Amanda's world, we hardly see her.  We have another superb Mrs. Bennett in Alex Kingston and Tom Riley is the best Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice movie history.   The Bennet sisters are all delightful, especially Ruby Bentall as Mary. Guy Henry as Mr. Collins takes the role from creepy to straight up pervert. The only disappointment is Elliott Cowan as Mr. Darcy who is appears to be wearing wooden underwear and who has zero chemistry with the character who is supposed to be his love interest.


  1. This is a wonderful comparison of the movies. Thank you for all your hard research. :-)

    I'm torn between the BBC and more recent movies and still don't know which is my favorite. Perhaps I should watch both again.

  2. My daughter & I recently did this with all the "Little Women" movies after reading the book.
    She completely agreed that Winona Ryder had no business playing Jo.
    I look forward to watching all these with her when she gets to Jane Austen. (She's 9, so we have some time.)

  3. I love LOVE Lost in Austen. You are so right about the differences in the movies. I thought I would hate the new movie since I loved the BBC version so much (I watched the BBC version in the labor room when I was giving birth to my first :)) But I love Mathew McFayden, and in the end, I really like the new one as well. It's just so beautiful, and I like his version of D'Arcy, so different than Colin Firth, but in some ways more romantic. The "I love you" scene in the new movie was much better than the one in the BBC version.

    Oddly, I saw the newest one when it came out in Europe and then saw it in the US later and was shocked that they had added the last scene. It seems so out of place. I guess they decided that Americans needed the "kiss" and so they plonked it on at the end there. Weird.

  4. I don't think I've seen the 1940 version and your post gives me no incentive. Women fall all over themselves concerning Colin Firth, and while I think he made a perfect Darcy lately I have the uncharitable "Girl, you look awful!" thoughts about him. I loved "Lost in Austen" and kept wishing Amanda would end up with Wickham instead of the mopey Darcy. You're so right about Winona. She needs to stay in contemporary movies. Or not in movies at all. Meow.

  5. Brilliantly researched & critiqued. Although I am biased in that your opinions totally mirror my own. And yes, PONDEROUS best describes the Elizabeth cast in the BBC version 2 of P&P.

  6. Sorry,
    If there's no explosions, babes in bikinis, spaceships, aliens or side splitting laughter I don't want to watch.

    Are there any aliens in Pride & Prejudice?

  7. My favorite is the 1995 BBC version, but that may be because I loved it so much (and, contrarily, really loved Ehle as Elizabeth) that I haven't watched the most recent one. (Also, probably blasphemously, I have to admit that I don't like reading Austen, although I love the movies.)

    After seeing the previews for Lost in Austen, I decided I didn't want to see it, but you have completely changed my mind and I'm going right to Netflix now to see how I can access it.

  8. i loved Lost in Austen...great wrap up. now, i need to read the book!

  9. I started watching Lost in Austenland on Netflix late one night, but it was too late at night and I fell asleep after about 20 minutes. I will have to go back someday.

    I enjoyed the Colin Firth P&P and the Keira Knightly version. Haven't seen either recently enough to say which I liked better, though.