Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pride and Prejudice

I went to see the movie Pride and Prejudice last night, which I found utterly delightful. Jane Austen's novel, which I read in junior high school, has always been one of my all-time favorites.
The film wonderfully connects with the comedy of Austen's romantic comedy about the romances of the five Bennett sisters around 1800 in rural England. Elizabeth, the second daughter and the heroine; her elder sister Jane, the family beauty, and Lydia, a fifteen-year old flirt and fool, all have romances, but are the men suitable marriage partners?

Austen portrays her heroine Elizabeth as quickly prejudiced against a possible suitor because of a small slight or rumors. Mr. Darcy, the rich young man who falls in love with her, is so full of pride that during his courtship he continually hurts her feelings. The eldest sister Jane is too restricted by convention to show Mr. Bingley, the young man that she loves, her true feelings, while Mr. Bingley lets himself be manipulated by his sister and Mr. Darcy to cut off a promising romance. So each sex has blinders on, unable to see the other's true worth. Austen portrays these romances with her wonderful comedy showing how foolish her characters are, but she allows her characters--particularly Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy who loves her--to see their errors and grow.

In graduate school my roommate Cynthia Evans wrote her paper defending Mrs. Bennett, the mother who is usually seen as a nervous idiot whose main focus in life is marrying off her five daughters. The intellectual father Mr. Bennet who has buried himself in his library reading is usually praised. My roommate Cynthia defended Mrs. Bennett and so in the film Brenda Belthyn gives us a fine Mrs. Bennett as nervous and flighty, but also very concerned for her daughters .

In both the novel and the film the Bennet family estate can only be inherited by a male heir, so the five Bennett sisters have no inheritance. They also have no education or jobs, so they must marry or be impoverished. Cynthia Evans argued that Mrs. Bennett is the wise one, trying her best to take care of her daughters, while Mr. Bennet is a narcisstic intellectual reading his beloved books and largely ignoring the girls except for his favorite Elizabeth. As Mrs. Bennet says in the film to Elizabeth, it's no easy task to marry off five daughters in 1800. Well, it isn't.

Keira Knightley, who played Elizabeth, is beautiful, lively, playful, and charming--one could quickly see why a young man would fall in love with her. In the first shot the camera follows Elizabeth rambling alone on the family farm, not the usual shot of her and the other girls cooped up in the family drawing room. Indeed Joe Wight, the director, often has shots of Elizabeth out in the open fields as if she has the freedom to roam around of 1950s romantic heroine rather than live the constricted life of a 1800 girl. What I find wonderful about Austen's novel and this film is the conflict between Elizabeth and her sisters' attempts to be emotionally freer versus the strict rules they were supposed to follow in society. Wight is giving us a new reinterpretation of the novel which focuses on this conflict between convention and freedom.

As a teenager I loved the romance of Pride and Prejudice but watching the movie I also loved the comedy. Tom Hollander did a wonderful job portraying Mr. Collins, the clergymen cousin of the Bennet's who will inherit the Benett estate. He calls calling, looking for wife, and first settles on Jane, but after Mrs. Benett tells him that Jane is half-engaged, decided after one minute reconsideration to propose to Elizabeth. Mr. Collins' proposal is funny and touching: he's such an awful suitor but he has his dignity at the same time. As he says, he is trying to do the right thing by proposing to one of the sisters whom he will disinherit. One feels for him at the same time as one laughs at his pretensions of a proposal to a young woman who clearly has no interest in him.

So go see this wonderful romantic comedy. Wonderful author Jane Austen. Wonderful novel. Wonderful film.

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