Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Quadruple Video Review : Pride and Prejudice (1940, 1980, 1995, 2005)


Jane Austen 
Pride and Prejudice: A Quadruple Video Review 

This is not a review of the novel. For one thing, I've already done it, and much as I dislike the piece, try as I might I can’t improve it. 

The following is an attempt for a (hopefully not too comparative) review of four different movie versions which span more than six decades of film-making and which I have had the (dis)pleasure of seeing in the last few weeks or so. Considering the vast cast of accomplished character actors with perfect diction that Pride and Prejudice requires, not to mention sensitive screenwriter, imaginative director and fanatical production designer, it is no surprise that many film adaptations should be rife with shortcomings. It is nothing short of amazing that at least one of those four comes somewhere near perfection. 

Anyway, enough preliminary remarks. Let's have a look at the movies. The full details about the four versions I am going to discuss are as follows:

1940, MGM, 118 min.
Cast:
Lizzy – Greer Garson
Darcy – Laurence Olivier
Jane – Maureen O’Sullivan
Lydia – Ann Rutherford
Mary – Marsha Hunt
Kitty – Heather Angel
Mrs Bennet – Mary Boland
Mr Bennet – Edmund Gwenn
Mr Bingley – Bruce Lester
Caroline Bingley – Frieda Inescort
Mr Collins – Melville Cooper
Mr Wickham – Edward Ashley
Lady Catherine – Edna May Oliver.

Screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, based on the dramatisation by Helen Jerome.
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.

1980, BBC, TV Mini-Series, 5 episodes, ca. 265 min. overall.
Cast:
Lizzy – Elizabeth Garvie
Darcy – David Rintoul
Jane – Sabina Franklyn
Lydia – Natalie Ogle
Mary – Tessa Peake-Jones
Kitty – Clare Higgins
Mrs Bennet – Priscilla Morgan
Mr Bennet – Moray Watson
Mr Bingley – Osmund Bullock
Caroline Bingley – Marsha Fitzalan
Mr Collins – Malcolm Rennie
Mr Wickham – Peter Settelen
Lady Catherine – Judy Parfitt.

Screenplay by Fay Weldon.
Directed by Cyril Coke.

1995, BBC, TV Mini-Series, 6 episodes, ca. 300 min. overall.
Cast:
Lizzy – Jennifer Ehle
Darcy – Colin Firth
Jane – Susannah Harker
Lydia – Julia Sawalha
Mary – Lucy Briers
Kitty – Polly Maberly
Mrs Bennet – Alison Steadman
Mr Bennet – Benjamin Whitrow
Mr Bingley – Crispin Bonham-Carter
Caroline Bingley – Anna Chancellor
Mr Collins – David Bamber
Mr Wickham – Adrian Lukis
Lady Catherine – Barbara Leigh-Hunt.

Screenplay by Andrew Davies.
Directed by Simon Langton.

2005, Focus Features, 127 min.
Cast:
Lizzy – Keira Knightley
Darcy – Matthew Macfadyen
Jane – Rosamund Pike
LydiaJena Malone
Mary – Talulah Riley
Kitty – Carey Mulligan
Mrs Bennet – Brenda Blethyn
Mr Bennet – Donald Sutherland
Mr Bingley – Simon Woods
Caroline Bingley – Kelly Reilly
Mr Collins – Tom Hollander
Mr Wickham – Rupert Friend
Lady Catherine – Judi Dench.

Screenplay by Deborah Moggach.
Directed by Joe Wright.

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The 1940 version I have wanted to see mostly because I have recently fallen in love with Laurence Olivier (and with his second wife but that’s another story). I was rather surprised to find a sumptuous production of considerable merit. The liberties taken with the novel are great – but not as great as you might expect from a Hollywood production in the early 1940s.

This is the version that Austen purists should never see, or if they do they might perhaps spare us, the common mortals, their relentless nit-picking. Yes, Greer Garson doesn’t look twenty, but neither does she look much older. Certainly, the costumes are historically completely inappropriate as they were obviously ripped off from the legendary production of Gone With the Wind that was released just one year before. To be sure, this wild chase with carriages and this monumental outdoor ball are also more reminiscent of the American South from the second half of the nineteenth century than of the English countryside in the first one. There are countless other changes and omissions of this nature. None of them is in any way detrimental to the movie – at least as long as you are not an Austen fanatic.

That said, there is one – but only one – significant departure from the novel which is absolutely unforgivable. Many a reviewer has remarked on it, and every one of them has been justly outraged. This is the transformation of Lady Catherine into a matchmaker. Yes, I’m afraid you’ve read that right. It is entirely out of character and it ruins one of the finest scenes in the novel. It may also be mentioned as a negative criticism that the script could have quoted Jane’s flawless dialogue more often than it actually did. The replacements invariably have more sugar and less bite than the original.

Nevertheless, despite all these drawbacks, and keeping in mind that compressing the novel into less than two hours is an impossible task by default, the 1940 version remains a highly entertaining movie. With the obvious exception of Lady Catherine, the essence of the other characters is very much preserved. This is doubtless due to a great cast that is often grossly underestimated.

Greer Garson as Lizzy
Greer Garson may not be the most youthful Elizabeth imaginable, but she is certainly among the wittiest and most charming ones I have encountered so far. She strikes a perfect balance between the spirited and the introverted moments. Among the quartet discussed here, Olivier’s Darcy is unique: his pride stems from prodigious sense of humour, his disdain is always mingled with a thin ironic smile. Can you stomach that? I find it refreshing and stimulating. Also, he is by far the handsomest one. The change of heart in both principals, which is of course the heart of the movie as well as of the novel, is acted beautifully.
Laurence Olivier as Darcy


The supporting cast boast some superb performances. Unusually crafty Mrs Bennet and quietly ironic Mr Bennet stand out. The dashing Mr Wickham, the venomous Caroline Bingley and the pompous Mr Collins may almost have stepped out of Jane’s pages. Ironically, the weakest performance of all is the only misrepresented part in the script. I do not share the general exaltation over Edna May Oliver. She makes Lady Catherine too much of a caricature.

Altogether a lovely movie very much in the spirit of Jane Austen, warts and all. Strictly forbidden for Austen addicts. Highly recommended for ordinary Austen admirers.

The 1980 version baffles me no end. How some people can hail this as the best adaptation ever, especially considering the 1995 series, is well beyond me. The best that can be said about this movie is that it keeps close to the novel and that its extensive length allows the luxury of but a few omissions. But the production is drab and the direction is dull.

Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzy
The cast is at best questionable. Elizabeth Garvie is a cute and rather delightful Lizzy, although she tends to downplay the character too much. Still, she is way superior to this dull stick David Rintoul. He looks like an orangutan, he moves like one, and he sounds like a robot. If there ever was a more wooden, artificial and just plain tedious Darcy, I have yet to meet him. He is the greatest disappointment in a production of spectacular mediocrity.

Mrs Bennet’s portrayal is rather accomplished though by no means exceptional. But Mr Bennet is completely devoid of his exquisite sense of humour, and he comes off as a stuffy old bore who is all but insufferably boring. None of the rest disgraces him- or herself. None makes any special impression either. I have some sneaky admiration for Mr Collins and Mr Wickham, but that’s just about all. Almost the whole cast seems to have been sedated before shooting.

The 1995 version is the zenith. It is the closest one to the novel. It is visually the most lavish, with the most wonderful cast and the most accomplished direction. Of course it is not perfect. Nothing is. But as a whole none of the other three comes even close. I very much doubt I will find its equal among other versions in the future. I am sure it cannot be surpassed.

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle
as Darcy and Lizzy
Colin Firth is my only qualm with this movie. But just like Darcy, he does improve on acquaintance. In the first three episodes he is a bit too busy looking sullen, but from the fourth onwards, after the fateful meeting with Lizzy in Pemberley, he manages his transformation rather well. That he is handsome and looks perfect for the part is no harm either. The wonderful thing is that Lizzy of Jennifer Ehle is even better than her proud suitor. She hardly looks twenty, and she could use a boost of adrenaline now and then, but she is nothing like the soporific Garvie. She has the same quiet yet compelling vivacity like Greer Garson.

The supporting cast is flawless. Mr and Mrs Bennet are nailed to the last syllable; fabulous performances that would have warmed Jane’s heart could she see them. So are the others. The very pretty Jane is pure goodness, not unattractive though somewhat stultifying quality. Lydia is insane and exasperating, Mary is rigidly intellectual and impossibly dull. Lady Catherine and Caroline Bingley are just about the most snobbish and condescending creatures ever to have (dis)graced the screen. Mr Wickham is a most accomplished liar and hypocrite. Perhaps only Mr Collins could have been a trifle more ridiculous, and Mr Bingley a bit more handsome, but these are very minor issues.

All in all, an outstanding mini-series that should satisfy even the most ardent Austenophile.

The 2005 version is the nadir. To begin with, it’s astonishingly ugly. It looks like the Middle Ages in Asia rather than like England of the early nineteenth century. Even after making the usual allowances for omissions and changes during the adaptation, the screenplay departs from Jane’s original in a most deplorable way. It is this version, not the 1940 one, which is the real travesty, if not in terms of plot at all events in terms of characters.

Keira Knightley as Lizzy
Whoever had the bright idea of casting Keira Knightley as Lizzy did a great disservice to the future generations. I shudder to think how many people will see this movie without any prior knowledge of the novel and will think, quite mistakenly, that Keira’s portrayal has anything to do with Jane’s; if they ever come to read the book later, they would probably be too full of pride and prejudice to really appreciate it. Keira’s vapid performance, rife with hideous grins that apparently pass for smiles, is fully matched by the worst Darcy imaginable. The proud and conceited gentleman has been scaled down to a timid and tedious creature.

The supporting cast, despite the presence of such illustrious names like Donald Sutherland (Mr Bennet who speaks his generally witty lines with a funereal air) and Judi Dench (Lady Catherine who sounds much more like Lady Macbeth), is no improvement over the weak principals. There is not a trace of Mr Collins’ trademark pomposity or Mrs Bennet’s equally typical (and fake) hysteria. Jane is supposed to be a placid creature, but is this one entirely devoid of life! The whole cast speak their lines in the most contrived and unnatural manner. All grace, charm and vivacity of the original have been lost.

There is nothing redeeming about this movie (except, perhaps, Lydia and the interlude with the marble statues). In addition to the fabulous vapidity of the acting, this includes the mediocre production, the clumsy direction, the clipped and simplified dialogue. It’s all matter of taste of course. But my idea of Pride and Prejudice has nothing to do with anorexic Lizzy, moronic Darcy and a bunch of talking mannequins who seem to have no idea what their lines mean. The praise lavished on this movie, by both critics and audience, is something I really don’t understand.

To sum up, the four movies are so different from one another that seeing them together is both fascinating and frustrating. The 1940 version is suitable only for the most broadminded among Austen admirers; if they are also fans of Laurence Olivier and/or Greer Garson, so much the better. The 1980 version is a good starter, and I can well see why it was reportedly very popular during the 1980s, but today it is of historical interest only. It has been totally and devastatingly superseded by the 1995 version. The misguided drama of the 2005 travesty is suitable for ardent admirers of Keira Knightley only. It has nothing to do with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

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