Monday, February 14, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Romance

Ah. Here we are on the day of Russell Stover chocolate assortments, conversation hearts and lace thong underwear. And sometimes of love and longing.

A year ago I had just broken up with my ex, and was still a couple of weeks away from my first date with my inamorato. I don't remember doing anything in particular, but I did churn out a blog post, if nothing else. I wrote about movie romance, and I touched upon the long and continuous craze for movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen novels, but I'd like to look at least one of them a little more closely.

Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen's masterpiece. It's been filmed about a zillion times for both movies and television. It's strangely appropriate that Bridget Jones's Diary, the book that launched a thousand modern romances, is a loose adaptation. It is a nearly perfect thing and it is essentially yours to ruin if you choose to adapt it. I wasn't going to bother to explain anything about the book, but then I remembered how many people I run into who have never read or seen any version of it. These people are nearly always Boys. So. Let me explain Pride and Prejudice to you.

The set up is great. The Bennett family resides in a house in the country, living on a modest income. Unfortunately, all the property is entailed, meaning upon Mr Bennett's death it will all go to the nearest male relative. As all five of the Bennett offspring are girls, they and Mrs Bennett are in danger of becoming penniless should anything happen to Mr Bennett while the girls remain unmarried. The story primarily concerns Lizzy Bennett, the second oldest daughter, who is about twenty years old.

The hero is Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, who famously remarks upon first laying eyes on the love of his life, Lizzy: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me." She, of course, overhears him, thinks (understandably) that he's a colossal jerk, and thus the stage is set for the best romance ever written, and all the thousands that follow over the subsequent two centuries. But, here's the thing, and the reason modern romances feel so inconsequential: for the Bennett girls, even though Pride and Prejudice is essentially a comedy, the matter of marriage and romance is life and death. For them, romance is a pitched battle in which a loser is consigned to penury and misery. This isn't a decadent game of the lesure class's. The stakes are sky high and one finds oneself desperately wanting things to work out for Lizzy. The book is often very, very funny, but when was the last time you saw a romance set in this day and age that caused any sort of anxiety or worry in you as you watched?

I recently rewatched the film adaptation from a few years ago, starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfayden, and beautifully directed by Joe Wright. The film felt a little rushed, but Wright's choices feel pretty much right on the money. Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in 1797, finally being published in 1813, and the film is set earlier than Austen's works usually are, which feels right. There's an earthiness to it that lends the film a texture and depth - it looks lived in and the period details seem unbelabored and natural. I spoke a bit elsewhere about Knightley's performance as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and about how the movie felt a little staid and Victorian (though the period was Georgian), and how she seemed a little miscast. Knightly is great as Lizzy and she and Macfayden are lovely together. Knightly has a lovely moment when she first sees Pemberly, Darcy's estate, while on holiday with her Aunt and Uncle - the estate is so ludicrously over the top, enormous and gorgeous she just bursts out laughing, because, I mean, who lives like that. And she's more or less destitute and she has already turned it down sight unseen as someone as stuck up as Darcy couldn't possibly be right for her.

Most importantly, the thing one must get right in the casting of all romances is that the participants must look and feel like they belong together. There's so much sneering at romance, as if it's the province of silly women, and it's so hard to talk about without falling into clichés, but it matters. We live in such an unpleasantly cynical age, where simple pleasures, like being happy for fictional characters is often discounted. Maybe I shouldn't be trusted. I was recently informed that my continued happiness was on the verge of becoming tiresome. I have no doubt that's the case, but I'm not finding it the least bit tiresome and am looking forward to it continuing. On that note, I must ready myself for the celebrations tonight!

A word about chocolate before I bid you adieu and await my beloved: we had a very chocolate heavy Christmas here at the Cabinet. Of special note is the gigantic box of delicious Polish chocolates bought for me by my inamorato. That's Pola Negri on the cover and the candy is filled with delicious things like rum and avocaat (not made out of lawyers as previously feared). The Pola Negri box of chocolates could not be recommended more highly.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Very true about the high stakes of P&P. But then, I just spent the evening watching The Philadelphia Story (for the first time!), which is delightful in no small part because it really is a decadent game of the leisure class. Go figure!

Alexis said...

Was just talking about how horrendous the current stock of romantic comedies are by ALL measures. P&P is the unassailable king (queen?) and I keep thinking about how great the BBC version is every time I see promo pics for The King's Speech (and the ever fantabulous swim in the lake scene). I'm not suggesting that current books/movies need to reach the heights of P&P but it would be great if they could be just a few notches closer.