A marriage made in style

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Jerome Monahan suggests ways of exploiting the latest adaptation of Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice Opens September 16 (certificate U) www.workingtitlefilms.comfilm. php?filmID=38

A free education pack from Film Education is being sent to secondary school www.filmeducation.org

"Literature is news that stays news," is one of Ezra Pound's most famous aphorisms and to judge by the arrival of another screen adaptation this month, there must be plenty that's still fresh and newsworthy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. It is 10 years since Colin Firth's famous plunge to glory in the last BBC adaptation and now we have a version that gives Keira Knightley a chance to show her mettle as Elizabeth Bennet. The film is her vehicle, lavishing extended close-ups on her in pensive mode - particularly following the news of her friend Charlotte's marital compromise in taking on the ghastly Mr Collins (Tom Hollander).

People's response to the film will depend on their feelings for Keira Knightley and her performance. She is strong in the role - holding her own in the abortive proposal scene with Matthew McFadyen's Mr Darcy, and exuding elegant defiance when confronted by Dame Judi Dench's Lady Catherine De Bourgh. It would be an interesting exercise for students to debate her possible motivations for taking the part, and is one of the featured in a Film Education pack that will be going out to schools in the first week of term ahead of the film's launch. Another debate is the extent to which her fame aids or undermines her in the role. From the off it is hard to take one's eyes off her - a slight problem given the need to believe in Darcy's only gradual appreciation of her vivacity and beauty.

The pack also dwells on the kinds of challenges filmmakers face in attempting to adapt a novel such as Pride and Prejudice so that it can fit the constraints posed by just two hours' screen time. Nothing could be more fatuous than to lament the film's shortcomings in the face of the novel's wonderfully constructed edifice of delay and slow revelation, but getting students to note and discuss the subtractions could prove a great way of assessing their appreciation and knowledge of the original text.

Invariably, there is an acceleration of events and a diminution of the cast. Curiously, Darcy is also something of a cipher in this adaptation - his role diminished by the headlong rush to romance that one might expect from filmmakers Working Title - responsible for Love Actually. Lost in translation to the screen is much of his rhythm of advance and retreat that brings such tension into the story.

The need to get going has a damaging effect on Mr Wickham (Rupert Friend), robbing him and Elizabeth of most of their encounters. Mr Collins is also cut back - although his proposal to Elizabeth manages to be both awkward and insulting and the scene's construction would make a good film language exercise. Another satisfying filmic device is that of showing characters distorted through glass panes or water jugs as a means of suggesting their confusion or moral ambiguity. What makes for fascinating analysis is the way in which the filmmakers have been forced to go broad stroke in order to suggest a society deeply obsessed with hierarchy. This is a movie for an audience that can't be counted on to have read the book or understand the minutiae of such things as the comparative size of a parlour. So it is that the LongbournNetherfield distinction is suggested by Donald Sutherland's Mr Bennet's preoccupation with his farm and livestock. While the beautiful people strike exquisitely framed poses at Netherfield, so pigs invade Longbourn's passages and the house must be approached through a maze of billowing sheets left out to dry.

No wonder Keira Knightley prefers the big outdoors and here the film rewards us with a picturesque trip to the Peaks and a drop in on Chatsworth, doubling up as Pemberley. It is at this point that things get especially explicit. The sequence is a rich one, allowing the screen Pemberley to perform a similar symbolic function to that achieved by the park and house in the novel but here the promise Elizabeth encounters in the fixtures and fittings is not that of Darcy's elegance of mind but of his erotic potential as her hands dwell in close-up on the smooth surfaces of the house's classical statuary.

But perhaps it is the end that is most revealing of what the filmmakers this time choose to emphasise. When Elizabeth and Darcy marry, theirs is a distinctly social contract and their continued happiness puts them in a position to perform essential service to the extended Bennet family. The novel concludes with the pair reflecting on others beyond them, explicitly the Gardiners and their part in bringing the pair together. This is not the stuff of modern romance and so director Joe Wright finishes his version with Darcy and Elizabeth generally unbuttoned and informal, clasping one another on a balmy summer's evening on one of Chatsworth's terraces.

They've clearly got the place to themselves.

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