Joe Wright is a harsh critic. In the Director’s Commentary of the 2005 feature-length film Pride and Prejudice, he frequently laments that certain scenes of the film just don’t work.
To state just a few, the first meeting of Mr Bingley and the Bennet family at the Meryton Assembly was “not well-shot,” “boring” and “flat”; the artificial lighting was unflattering for Judy Dench’s complexion; and he will think again before ever working with CGI.
Perhaps he was just too close to the project, because I found the film to be a cinematically beautiful, well constructed, and touching adaptation. Even where Wright deviated from Jane Austen’s original, I did not think back wistfully to the book. I accepted his changes and even found myself feeling grateful for them.
Wright made a conscious decision to stray from Pride and Prejudice the novel in pursuit of the real. He says Jane Austen described the book as “too light and lacking in shade,” so Wright saw it as his role to bring some necessary darkness to the tale. The result is a gritty and edgy film that is more reminiscent of the Brontè sisters than Austen.
In the opening sequence, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth is on the last stretch of a leisurely walk back to Longbourn. Austen describes the Bennet family estate as “the village where they lived, and of which they were the principal inhabitants.” With her focus on dialogue and connections, many of the finer details were left to the reader’s imagination. And Wright’s imagination took many creative liberties.
To enter Longbourn, Lizzy first crossed a low brick bridge over a murky duck pond and then passed through a courtyard littered with servants, farm stock and sheets of hanging linen. The house is set on sludgy, hay-strewn grounds and the Bennet family shares their home with a mangy looking dog that Wright encouraged to freely wander around the set.
In their idle time, the Bennet ladies laze about in stained and crumpled clothing, speckled with crumbs from their afternoon tea. The house is unkempt and strewn with beetroot-stained ribbons and Mr Bennet is often unshaven and disheveled.
Through Wright’s lens, Longbourn is more a farmyard than a gentleman’s home, and this interpretation has received its fair share of censure. The traditionalists lamented, “What would Ms Austen make of this?”
I don’t think she would have cared an iota.
For all we know, Wright’s interpretation is closer to Austen’s reality. For all we know, Andrew Davies’ BBC mini-series adaptation – with barely a flyaway hair or a morsel out of place – was too clean, too tainted by our modern, sanitary expectations.
For me, Wright’s realism was refreshing. And it made the romance that more satisfying. I placed more stock in Lizzy’s decision to marry only for love, because it seemed more likely that a wrong decision would send her hurtling toward servitude.
Wright said, at the end of the day, what are important are tender, honest emotions. And emotions were aplenty in this adaptation. Where Austen was content with polite, demure smiles, Wright opted for raw passion and human emotion.
True to his Brontè-like interpretation, Matthew Macfadyen was more Heathcliff than Mr Darcy as he traipsed through the cold, misty moors in pursuit of his unrequited love. In the proposal scene, Elizabeth and Darcy were thrown into the elements, dripping wet and at the heat of their argument. For a moment, they almost kissed – and I leant forward in my seat in hopeful anticipation, even though I knew it would never happen.
Wright’s Longbourn seemed to have too many fires constantly burning. Literally. The cast often appeared damp with perspiration… but perhaps it was his intention for the characters to always to appear hot and sweaty? Perhaps it was a deliberate, symbolic allusion to the boiling passions that were hidden within?
When Elizabeth and Mr Darcy dance at the Netherfield Ball, the scene becomes almost eerie as the rest of the assembly fades away and only the two remain – like two ghosts floating across the floor in silence, already tied together until death.
When explaining the arduous task of filming the Netherfield Ball, Joe Wright explained that perfect takes were abandoned in the editing room. If the takes were too perfect, they lacked any magic. So he opted for the imperfect cuts that retained their soul.
This sums up the entire film. It’s not perfect, but it has heart. It’s not exactly true to the book, but at its centre is a commitment to Austen’s story. And in the final scene, when Elizabeth makes an impassioned plea to her father to give his consent for her marriage to Mr Darcy – Mr Bennet knew that she truly loved him. On her face there was more than polite self-satisfaction, there was real, exposed emotion. Mr Bennet saw it – and so did I.