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What Jane Austen Doesn’t Tell Us

Sense and Sensibility

a film directed by Ang Lee, screenplay by Emma Thompson


a film directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Nick Dear


a film directed by Amy Heckerling, screenplay by Amy Heckerling

Pride and Prejudice 1996

directed by Simon Langton, screenplay by Andrew Davies. produced by BBC Television Arts and Entertainment, January 14—16,

The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film

by Emma Thompson
Newmarket Press, 287 pp., $23.95

The Making of ‘Pride and Prejudice’

by Sue Birtwistle, by Susie Conklin
Penguin/BBC, 120 pp., £9.99

The six-hour Pride and Prejudice now showing on the Arts and Entertainment network is the fourth screen adaptation of a Jane Austen novel to appear since August, though it is by no means the best. This Pride and Prejudice is a BBC production; the script is by Andrew Davies, who did the BBC Middlemarch shown here on Masterpiece Theatre two years ago. Like the Middlemarch, it is a generally dutiful rendition with not the shadow of an idea in sight except the idea that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are two uncommonly good-looking people who have simply got to get past all these ridiculous social hang-ups so they can be where they ought to be, which is together.

This is an interpretation not incompatible with the pleasure most people take in the book, of course, and the enhancement it requires of Jane Austen’s text is an enhancement that has probably been made in readers’ heads pretty continually since 1813, when it first appeared—which is, the glamorization of Mr. Darcy. Nearly all of Davies’s departures from the novel involve Darcy, and are calculated to remind us of something Austen is characteristically elliptical about, which is that Darcy (played here by Colin Firth) has a body. We see him, therefore, in his bath; we see him practicing his fencing (he turns out, not surprisingly, to be a fierce and accomplished swordsman); we watch him strip off his coat and neckcloth and take a spontaneous plunge into what looks, actually, like a rather weedy pool on the grounds of his estate. This is, in short, a P&P with extra Darcy. He rides, he strides, he stares, he smolders. Rakish things are done with his hair. So that when he is finally accepted by Elizabeth, we fairly expect him to rip his own bodice before ripping hers.

He doesn’t, though. No bodices are ripped at all. Darcy and Elizabeth barely touch hands in the reconciliation scene, and their single kiss, in the very last shot, takes place in the wedding carriage and is a disappointingly decorous and tentative affair, made awkward by the lady’s bonnet and the gentleman’s unflattering top hat. What a relief, they seem to say, to have cleared up all those misunderstandings. Now let’s be sweethearts.

A show that fails to rise even to the height of expectations this soapy is a show in serious trouble, and when Elizabeth and Darcy are off the screen, there is not much else to entertain us. This is principally the fault of the acting, which is misconceived in the minor roles, and of the direction, which is by Simon Langton—who is also, presumably, responsible for much that is wrong with the acting.

Langton has somehow failed to see that although the book’s characters are frequently obnoxious to each other, they do not therefore have to be obnoxious to us. The greatest offense in this regard is the Mrs. Bennet, played by Alison Steadman, who has been permitted to affect an unnatural and grating falsetto—it is as though the character were being played by a female impersonator—and to dominate, largely by sheer noise, every scene in which she appears. The intention must have been to show us why Darcy is reluctant to acquire such a mother-in-law; but Mrs. Bennet (in the novel) offends because her manners are undeveloped, not because she is a shrieking harpy. Her struggle, perpetually defeated, to couch her mercenary thoughts in even marginally respectable language is exasperating to her husband and her older daughters, but it is comical to us, because it operates in the story as a measure of the similar, but much more successful, duplicities of many of the other characters—from the unctuous Mr. Collins and the predatory Miss Bingley to the suave deceiver Wickham and the grand dragon herself, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mrs. Bennet is no more self-seeking than any of these other people; she is only less clever and a lot more desperate.

David Bamber’s Mr. Collins, the Bennet sisters’ clerical cousin, is likewise overdrawn. His whole person announces his absurdity—the squinting, the handkerchief wringing, the Monty Pythonish gait—when the inspired mixture of servility and bombast which Austen has invented for his speech ought to have been enough. Benjamin Whitrow’s Mr. Bennet is more serviceable, but the part is such a piece of cake it’s hard to know how anyone could spoil it. Wickham, the man who attracts Elizabeth but turns out to be an unredeemable bounder, is played by Adrian Lukis as pretty obviously a deadbeat and a sponge from the start, so it is never clear what it was about him that Elizabeth, or any of the other women he has charmed, found so irresistible.

Austen’s original title for the novel was “First Impressions,” and although “prejudice” is a more fitting rubric for the story she is trying to tell—it replaces an allusion to individual psychology and sensation with an allusion to social psychology and convention—one aspect of prejudice is still the ordinary inclination to take the appearance for the essence. This is a game in which the reader is naturally involved; almost every novelist plays it, and the reversals are predictable enough. But in a dramatization especially it is important to maintain, precisely, the appearances, since the behavior of the principals is otherwise obtuse. It has to be believable that Mrs. Bennet is possibly just artless and well-meaning, that Wickham is noble and ill-used, that Darcy is indifferent; if it’s not, the shock Elizabeth feels when she realizes, in each case, that the contrary is true is no credit to her good sense.

Pride and Prejudice is easily the funniest novel Austen wrote, but it is not a comedy. It is a satire, and this requires maintaining a constant distance between the characters and the audience—the famous Austenian irony. What is funny or absurd to us is not funny and absurd to them; it is simply their world (our world, too, of course, but we are being given the privilege of laughing at it from the outside). The most irritating thing about the direction of the BBC Pride and Prejudice is the continual panning, or cutting away, for reactions. Whenever a character says something silly or stupid, another character smirks or snickers or rolls her eyes or in some similar fashion signals to us that a fatuity has been uttered. One begins to suspect that the filmmakers were not used to dealing with this kind of material without the benefit of a laugh track. This constant italicizing deprives us of the gratification of judging the absurdity of the characters for ourselves. But it also breaks the satirist’s bubble. Everyone knows how to play The Importance of Being Earnest: the more imperturbably solemn the actors, the more devastating the effect. Pride and Prejudice ought to be done the same way.

Still, putting all the worst that can be said about this production to one side, the best is quite memorable. She is Jennifer Ehle, who plays Elizabeth. In my judgment Ms. Ehle, even in a silly bonnet, is a deeply fetching actress. (I was a little crushed to learn, from the Penguin book about the production, The Making of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ that in real life she is a blonde.) Her Elizabeth is charismatic by virtue not only of the flashing eyes and quick tongue everyone imagines in the character but of an unexpected athleticism as well. She has a body, too. We see her prancing across the landscape in the opening minutes of the series, and she runs, sometimes just to let off steam, at several other points in the story as well. She is, or she is allowed to be, always the most striking physical presence in her scenes, and this gives her the stature to match Colin Firth’s erotically enhanced Darcy.

It is therefore a pity that the scene in which Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth, which is the most sexually charged passage in all of Jane Austen’s novels, is directed as unimaginatively as it is. What is great about the moment is that it just keeps going: he proposes, she rejects him, he attacks her, she attacks him, he defends himself, she rejects him again: they keep astonishing themselves by the strength and the bottomlessness of their own emotions. You cannot get the effect of this wild-fire escalation, though, if you start in a tone of stridency and maintain it all the way through, which is how it is done here. Ehle and Firth have to steal the scene, in effect, from the director; but they do it pretty well. She lashes while he burns. Susannah Harker, as Elizabeth’s placid older sister, Jane, and Crispin Bonham-Carter, as Mr. Bingley, the single man in possession of a blah blah blah, are perfect foils to Ehle and Firth. That the story’s four romantic leads are so satisfactory makes the shortcomings in the secondary roles more regrettable but, in the end, less important.

One of the many intelligent things about Emma Thompson’s brilliant adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which opened in December, is the determination to get the secondary parts exactly right. The way to do this is to eliminate duplicative characters (in this case, for example, the self-centered Lady Middleton, who, thematically, just doubles the self-centered Mrs. John Dashwood) and to be uninhibited about reconfiguring the story to suit the screen. Thompson (this is her first screenplay) has used Austen’s lines when they work to her purposes and has invented her own when they don’t. And every one of the minor roles is given a virtuoso turn by an excellent character actor: Robert Hardy as Sir John Middleton, the sporting baronet who lends the Dashwoods a house when they are turned out of their own; Emilie François as Mrs. John Dashwood, the woman who turns them out; Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, the tactless romantic meddler; Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton as the ill-matched Palmers; Richard Lumsden as the drippy Robert Ferrars. They are all funny, and sublimely ignorant of any reason why.

It sounds heretical, but the key to the movie’s success is the fact that Thompson has made a number of improvements on Austen’s original. The chief problem with the book is the stupefying dullness of the men the Dashwood sisters eventually pair off with: the diffident sad sack Edward Ferrars, pined after by the otherwise sensible Elinor, and the stolid sad sack Colonel Brandon, who lucks out by getting the sensitive Marianne on the rebound from the caddish Willoughby. The actors in these parts—Hugh Grant (whose flustered charmer routine is getting a little overworked), Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Greg Wise, respectively—are all very good. But to get a credible romance out of the story, at least one of the men has to be made appealing, and this is something Austen seems to have neglected to put her mind to.

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