Friday, 26 February 2010

Pride and Prejudice (dir. Joe Wright, 2005)

For those unfamiliar with the story, about two thirds of the way through Pride and Prejudice is a scene where Lizzy, visiting Mr Darcy's very posh house as a tourist, wanders through the gallery and looks at his portrait, and realises that he is, in fact, rather attractive (perhaps it was just a very good painter). In the 1995 BBC adaptation, which, like all BBC television adaptations is almost slavishly faithful to the book (with the notable exception of The Wet Shirt Scene), Lizzy walks down a traditional long gallery, found in many, many National Trust properties, and gazes at an oil painting of Mr Darcy, such as are usually found in these places.

In Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation, however, the scene looks rather different. Wright has already selected stately homes with rather richer interior decoration than the BBC had chosen, the camera panning over vividly coloured paintings of nude figures in classical or biblical scenes (though usually passing over too quickly to easily identify them) in both Rosings Hall, Lady Catherine de Bourgh's home, and Darcy's home of Pemberly.

According to the DVD extras, Wright was looking for a traditional portrait gallery for the scene, but couldn't find anything suitable, and changd his mind on discovering the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth House, where they were filming for Pemberly. He decided using this and producing a bust of Darcy would give Lizzy's encounter with the portrait more immediacy, so the sculpture gallery appears instead of a portrait gallery.

In the finished film, we see Lizzy wander around the sculpture gallery in a daze, blending into it entirely in her cream coloured dress. With the exception of Darcy's bust (very accurate, which the portraits aren't always, probably a cast of the actor) the pieces she looks at are of classical characters. None of them are classical pieces - they are eighteenth and nineteenth century works, but based around classical themes. We first see her gaze at a statue of a veiled woman in classical dress, which a little poking around on the internet reveals to be a statue called the Veiled Vestal (thanks to the enterprising person who e-mailed Chatsworth to ask about it, and to Jane Wood from Chatsworth for replying). This statue is actually mid-nineteenth century, far too late to appear in Pride and Prejudice, especially in this version, which is set earlier than most, but never mind. The statue, with its covered face, fits the themes of incorrect 'first impressions' (the novel's first title) rather well, though you wouldn't necessarily know it was classical if you didn't know what it was.

The next statue is much more obviously classical though - it's a sculpture of Achilles, clutching the arrow in his heel. The camera clearly shows the audience the arrow, and scans past Achilles' agonised expression. For reasons best known to the artist, Achilles is naked except for his identifying ancient helmet (you know the style, the one with the big feathers sometimes identified with the Trojans) and the statue introduces two elements not usually so overtly present in this scene - pain and sex. Emotional pain is, of course, central to Pride and Prejudice but physical pain is less so (Jane's cold/flu is no more than a plot contrivance, unlike Marianne's much more serious illness in Sense and Sensibility) but the use of the immediately recognisible dying Achilles in this scene brings out the emotional pain of the characters by introducing an element of physical pain into the audience's subconscious.

Much more important for the film than the element of pain, though, is sex, and this is made abundently clear in the final statue that the camera pans over before coming to the bust of Darcy. Jane Austen's novels are, on one level, all about sex, since they are all about marriage and sex is generally one of the consequences of marriage. Getting married in Jane Austen, however, is about much more than sexual attraction, since money, social position and general respectability all take precedence over lust (the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has a wonderful moment, in the final wedding, where the vicar says marriage was provided by God as protection against lust and Mr Bennet gives Mrs Bennet an incredibly guilty look - they rushed into their marriage out of physical attraction and ended up thoroughly miserable together, as are Lydia and Wickham). But Wright's 2005 film is not nearly so interested in all these more practical concerns. Lizzy and Darcy's mutual sexual attraction is played up from the beginning, and there's much, much more sexual tension in his disastrous first proposal than in most adaptations, where the attraction is usually entirely one-sided (his) until this very scene.

The paintings seen so far on ceilings and distant walls had allowed Wright to introduce some sex into the film, and Mr Collins gets some hilarious accidentally-dirty lines, but it's here in the sculpture gallery that he's really able to up the ante, sex-wise. Following on from the statue of Achilles, the camera pans lovingly and slowly over the naked backside of another vaguely classical-looking sculpture (unfortunately the camerman is so fixated on the statue's bottom that it's impossible to tell who it is, though it seems to be female). Just as classical subjects provided artists of the time with an excuse to depict naked men and women, which would be an utterly inappropriate way to depict a contemporary figure, the sculptures at Chatsworth provided the filmmakers with an excuse to get some nudity into their film. In the book and in most adaptations, Lizzy is impressed by the wealth of Pemberly - here, the use of classical images allows her to be impressed by the sexiness of Pemberly instead.

I like the film a lot, though I think I will always think of the BBC adaptation as the definitive. For all the fuss made at the time of 1995 adaptation about wet shirts and possible erections, though, it is definitely the 2005 film that puts the sex into Jane Austen, by careful use of classical mythology.

6 comments:

  1. I too really enjoyed this version and put it in the dvd player a bit more often than the BBC version, if only for the practicality of length! :p
    That and I prefer this Lizzy, the age matches up better.

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  2. I adored Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice. It was my favourite film of 2005. I love the economy and brio he uses, showing passage of time by Lizzy spinning on swing, a quick shot of Jane sneezing on the doorstep sums up several chapters, the wonderful scene of Lizzy and Darcy dancing when everyone melts away, the superb tracking shot at the second ball, the blurted train-wreck declaration of love in the rain... I could go on and on. And you have just shown me a new element! Gratias ago!

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  3. I love that tracking shot at the ball, and the first proposal is wonderful - normally, in other versions, I find that scene hideously uncomfortable, which is faithful to the book, but the passionate argument in the rain and the near-kiss is much more romantic and enjoyable to watch!

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  4. When I was in the cinema for my second viewing of it, in the rain scene when Lizzy and Darcy almost kiss and then she turns away, two posh Chelse ladies in the seats behind me audibly cried 'No!' in unison.

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  5. The BBC version of Pride and Prejudice will always be my first love-- I'm not a big Kiera Knightly fan, honestly, but I'll put it in if I need a quick fix.

    I just found your blog through twitter and I'm thrilled! Can't wait to read more!

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  6. Thanks Amalia!

    I don't mind Keira, I quite like her and the length is definitely a plus. But Colin Firth will always be Mr Darcy, Matthew McFayden is cute but he smiles too much!

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