It’s the time of the month of the book review once again, and none of my posts on the list for the rest of the month has happened while I was on retreat, ill, away, busy with other work because people volunteer things but almost never follow through with it (if you are reading this and you are one of the two people who actually turned in an article for me THANK YOU).
This time though, while it’s good old Jane once again, we are not going for the books. It’s going to be me making the case that the 2005 Wright film is the best adaptation of the novel. I hope that you’re still reading and haven’t vanished in a cloud of rage at this assertion, because I believe I have a strong argument that will, if not persuade you that I’m right, at least persuade you that I’m not blaspheming.
Let’s begin with the arguments made by the opposition. The 1995 BBC adaptation is seen as the only option because it’s more faithful to the novel and has Colin Firth in it (although I think he didn’t nail the character as well as he nailed the modern lawyer namesake in Bridget Jones’ Diary, he’s often too cocky to be the kind of arrogance by rank behind which someone would hide shyness of strangers and possibly undiagnosed autism).
It is true that longer adaptations allow for a narration more closely related to the novels, but I’m not the biggest fan of word by word adaptations. Granted, if you change things beyond their recognition and completely misunderstand what they are about I don’t like that either, but I tend to judge films on their own artistic merits. If I wanted something close to the novel I would like, you know, read the novel. If I’m watching a film I am looking for something that takes the core of the story and makes something visually beautiful with it. Removing poor characters like the married Bingley sister who really just serves to reinforce her other sister and provide comic relief with a bad husband isn’t that big a loss, for one.
One thing I like about the Wright adaptation is that the countryside is a character in its own right. All of the environments in which the characters move has as much a story to tell as the characters themselves. Then, while they may be further away from the story than the BBC version, I believe that the characters left are more genuinely in line with the novel than in the BBC one, although they both had stunning performances from really great actors. This is, however, mostly true with Darcy. Matthew McFadyen truly gets the shyness behind the superiority. He’s broody rather than cocky, but just arrogant enough that you can see why Elizabeth saw him the way she did. He is clearly an upper-class gentleman used to a small circle of friends of the same class, who has never had to learn how to relate to a different society than them and his servants.
He is not malicious, however, the way Caroline Bingley is. She is very good at putting on a façade just to then talk behind your back, and manipulate those around her into doing what she wants (I, like Colonel Fitzwilliam, can’t really blame Darcy for doing what he did to Bingly and Jane, especially in light of what happened to Georgiana. He had his best interest at heart, but Caroline only hers). The only other portrayal that really hits at the heart of Darcy is Matthew Rhys in Death Comes to Pemberley, although he is a bit too prone to anger than what I believe was Jane Austen’s intention. I’m sorry, Colin Firth is one of my all-time favourite actors but his Darcy just isn’t a brooder. Everyone is just fussing over the wet shirt, really.
Keira Knightley as Elizabeth isn’t as strong as Darcy, but she was very successful at showing the transition and growth of her character. The scenes at Pemberley are just adorable. My favourite portrayal of a Bennet sister in this film remains Jane, though. Rosamund Pike looks so natural as a girl with a quieter demeanour, but can also convey a lot with just one look (as every respectable Regency girl would!). She is someone who isn’t just a nice girl, she hides so much depth inside she holds a stronger fascination than her good looks and good nature.
I also love how the film is so perfectly packaged like a play that would get Aristotle’s mark of approval. It may not closely follow the dialogue the way purists would love (including, apparently, the script’s author who had to draft it 10 times before they found the balance between modern and period that would satisfy the director, who may be brilliant at his job but has all the wrong opinions about the 18th century). It is also set slightly earlier than the novel, however, I believe this adds to the idea of the story as both universal and unique, and the costumes and ambiance have just enough modern elements to look like a fable rather than a history documentary.
In this respect, the BBC adaptation, which is more realistic, loses some of the dream-like qualities of this adaptation. It’s a bit of a Romantic bucolic fantasy, and I’m obviously so here for this. The way the characters dress reflects the moving of the storyline and their own personality rather than historicity (although Caroline Bingley is obviously presented as the height of fashion, but that’s pretty much still in line with the idea of the clothes as personality because that’s most of what there is to her).
I find these little details of how they made the film its own little masterpiece instead of trying to rival the 1995 adaptation very endearing, and this is why I love this film so much. It’s not in spite of its lack of precision in representing the novel, but because of it.