Last night marked the end of a very, very long week. At a loss and with a tired, scrambled brain, I decided to try rewatching Pride and Prejudice, the 2005 version.
A little background: I adore Pride and Prejudice. I love the book and I’ve watched most of the various adaptations, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bridget Jones and Bride and Prejudice included, and my favourite (predictably) is the 1995 BBC 6-hour, 6-part classic. All adaptations bring something to the story – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies brought zombies! – and all have a place in my heart.
All except the 2005 movie starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden.
When I first saw it back in 2005, I didn’t like it. My lingering impressions over the fourteen (!) years since have been mostly of gorgeous scenery, grungy realism, and a complete lack of emotion. So I decided it was time for a rewatch to see what my older self thought of it.
The elements I listed above are still there, but I think I can pinpoint my issue with it better: it’s a beautiful shell of a movie with little underlying substance.
The scenery and screenplay are stunning. It’s a gorgeous movie. Even in the stark, unpolished depiction of late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century life – the sweatiness and awkwardness of people, chickens and pigs underfoot at the Bennets’, and the giggly youth of the Bennet sisters – there’s a poetry which I confess I like a lot. Many adaptations, the 1995 version included, tend to gloss over how filthy countryside living had to have been, and how hygiene and sanitation was (mis)managed by people at the time.
While that’s very welcome and refreshing, it comes at the cost of historical accuracy and consistency of fashion, manners, social interactions, rank distinction, etc. Despite not owning a farm, I could be convinced the Bennets had animals nearby – but literally in the house? Um. No. The clothing was all right (not good), but I utterly utterly despise the haircut they put onto poor Keira Knightley’s head. The hairstyles in general were terrible. These were rich people. They had servants and spare time, even the Bennets. Their hair would have been on point every day.
And the manners . . . this a story about the nobility and the rituals and pressures of their sphere. You cannot show Jane telling Lydia off for inviting Wickham to Bingley’s ball (correct), then have Lady Catherine de Bourgh arriving for her showdown with Elizabeth after the Bennet household had retired for bed (wildly incorrect). In no lifetime would a lady of Catherine de Bourgh’s position call unannounced on any household at that time of night for any reason short of death or an invasion of the French. Certainly not on settling a rumour. And men entering women’s bedrooms, or characters seeing the other sex in their nightclothes without any reaction at all . . . I mean, what?
The lack of emotion to me stems from the dialogue and writing being cut down and modernised. (I did appreciate Caroline Bingley’s “It’s not very patriotic” joke though.) Winsome, longing looks or lingering shots of hands and trees don’t replace story. It’s an achievement to produce a pared-down story with barely fleshed out characters that’s somehow two hours long. I didn’t see Lizzie and Darcy’s respective character developments or their growing affection for each other, and worse, I didn’t feel it. Without those character developments, you don’t have the point of the story.
I will say Matthew Macfayden did bring something new to Darcy; he was more accessible and adorably awkward in this version, and I wanted more of that. Keira Knightley’s Lizzie – forget it. She’s sparky and the sisterly affection is there, but she brought a strange smugness that’s out of Elizabeth’s character. I didn’t see any of the intellectual wit her character is famous for. For both characters, there’s a sense of not enough. Where was the connection and warmth between these two? Quick dialogue and a weird angry proposal scene in the rain (“I’m just a boy asking . . .” noooooooo, rom com tropes don’t belong in a period movie I weep) do not a connection make.
The plot bounced from moment to moment very quickly. Too quickly. I acknowledge that to squeeze the full story into two hours is a big ask, so I’ll forgive this somewhat. Though I do think they could’ve spent less time on shots of chickens and Lizzie mooning on a swing, and more on, you know, plot. The result is that the movie requires the audience knowing the story and characters beforehand in order to fill in the gaps, and not in the subtle reference way that nods to hardcore fans, but in the way that makes the movie incomplete as a standalone piece.
Which is deeply irritating. There’s so much potential. Especially with talent behind the camera and when there are actors like Rosamund Pike, Donald Sutherland, and Carey Mulligan being wasted in front of it – I kept forgetting Carey Mulligan was Kitty and not Lydia (with apologies to Jena Malone, who was quite brilliant as Lydia).
And the scene where Elizabeth and Darcy meet in a field . . . oh my god, what the hell. What the hell. It makes no sense. None. Nada. Nichts. How did they know the other person would be there? Why early morning walks with such basic clothing (the UK isn’t known for being balmy early in the morning)? Why no embarrassment about being seen in their underclothes? It’s swooning and lovely, yes, but it makes no sense, which takes away all the romance.
Far and away the music is the best part of this movie.
The defences I’ve seen of this movie tend to focus on its modernity. The director took a period piece and put in modern cultural references to translate the old to new eg showing the Bennet house as grimy and with animals underfoot to convey that yes, they are poor relative to the rest of the upper class. The haircuts are flowy and in keeping with modern taste so that yes, we do think the young people are pretty. Charlotte very clearly spells out why she’s marrying Mr Collins so that the audience remembers the culture around marriage was, in fact, centred on strategy and life prospects rather than love, and in turn understands her decision (and all at the sacrifice of the wonderful line, “I’m not romantic, you know. I never was”). The dialogue being rapid and to the point keeps internet-shortened attention spans engaged. Having our lovers meet by
telepathy destiny whimsy coincidence (? idfk) in a field at dawn smacks of modern romance tropes. It’s romantic, innit. The point of this is to make a period piece accessible to modern audiences. I understand this approach in principle but it fell flat for me. Possibly because I’m already a period drama fan and need no easing into the genre.
Huh. I guess that means this movie is not actually for me.
Shit, I get it now. Welp.
It feels strange that there’s an ostensibly period Pride and Prejudice movie that isn’t aimed at Pride and Prejudice fans, but there you go. I can promise that it will take another fourteen years for me to consider watching it again.
Because it seems that disclaimers are needed nowadays instead of being self-evident: this is a rant ie personal opinion. Like any piece of art, this movie works for some people, and not for others, and I happen to fall into the latter category. Usually I can see why someone likes a particular thing that I don’t, but this is one example where I just don’t get it.
Here is a list of adaptations I do like:
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Bride and Prejudice
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
Bridget Jones’ Diary
Pricks and Pretension
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Lost in Austen (please ignore the awful American narrator in this trailer. Yikes.)