Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rejection Served Up Three Different Ways

Jane Austen’s use of free indirect speech in her novels often allows the reader a certain amount of flexibility in imagining dialogue, tone, and delivery. This effect differs from a play because our imaginations of what is being said and how will vary considerably.

There is a scene in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennett rejects Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal of marriage. It’s simultaneously serious and hilarious.

Filmmakers have portrayed this scene in a number of ways. Three analyzed here are the adaptations starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson (Robert Leonard, 1940), the BBC version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (Simon Langton, 1995), and the most recent one with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (Joe Wright, 2005).

In the oldest of the three versions, Laurence Olivier’s acting is stiff and wooden. His movements are the epitome of awkwardness. His delivery in the particular scene is flowery and his tone is pleading, but he displays the attitude of a man who’s quite sure he’s going to get what he wants eventually. Garson’s delivery comes off as being forced, and her demeanour is altogether too distant and aloof. The chemistry between the two is also quite lacking. The scene is romantic in its own way (no doubt due only to Olivier’s dashing good looks), but completely outdated for modern audiences and I daresay, outdated even for the Regency era. What lacks here is the humor and wit in Austen’s own writing. It’s definitely funny, but for the wrong reasons.

The costumes are also all wrong. Greer Garson looks like a Southern belle. What happened to the empire-waist gowns?

Secondly, there is the BBC version, considered by many fans to be the definitive one and the truest to Austen’s novel. As a television miniseries, the pace is slower, which works well for the dialogue. It allows a more concerted and episodic movement of events. The downfall is that it looks very much like a miniseries. The costumes are also extremely light-colored. I am not sure if this is historically accurate for country wear of the era, but it is definitely difficult on the eyes and at times, looks like a commercial for Tide with Bleach.

The scene is masterful. Both Ehle and Firth do such a marvelous job. Out of our three Darcy’s, Firth really does appear to understand his character the best. The (sexual) frustration and angst on his side is right on point. The nuances of his emotional restraint are quite remarkable. Firth is an underrated actor. Most importantly, the scene is really funny. If you’re not in tears of laughter by the end of it, then you’re not watching it properly. Firth has an exceedingly good grasp of the language and Ehle’s eye movements are perfect.

The most recent version, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen takes the most liberty with this scene. The director takes the scene out of a stuffy parlor room into the verdant outdoors. The power of it relies on the periphery of what’s going on & the body language rather than the actual words. Neither Knightley nor Macfadyen do the words justice, delivering them in a very rushed manner, almost as if they can’t wait to finish and just get out of the rain. It’s the most cinematic of the three and the most serious. Darcy’s anger is quite palpable. The use of rain is surprisingly not clichéd.

This scene is very tense—Darcy and Elizabeth are all out fighting with each other. It’s a real conversation, not a pre-meditated delivery of speeches. It’s the only version of the scene among these three where it’s about her as much as it is about him. They’re about to kiss at the end, and he decides against it. Or rather, propriety would have forbidden it.

The costumes look like clothes one can live and move in.

However Lizzy Bennett may have rejected Darcy the first time around, I guess the important thing is, she accepts him the second time around . . . but that’s much less interesting.


YiQi C. said...

Nicely done. I watched a few minutes of the 1940 and the BBC scene. Your evaluation of Laurence Olivier and Colin Firth's acting is well put. I adore Olivier, but his body language was awful. It "looked" awful. (and, yes, what's up with Greer Garson's poofy dress?). Even though I find the BBC version to be very stagey at times (more from camerawork than anything else), the spatial design in the 1940 P&P is very theatrical. Olivier clearly isn't acting for the guy in the back of the sound stage, but his movements are not natural.

Colin Firth's body language, on the other hand, fits more with the rest of the scene. It's clear that there's something he wants to say but either he doesn't know how to or he's half trying to convince himself not to say anything.

How does the novel develop Darcy's character and his likeability? Does the reader's opinion of him necessarily align with Elizabeth Bennett's? Which film is a closer parallel to the book in this regard? Which film does a good job of presenting his character independent of how he is portrayed in the book?

Ishtar said...

Having not done a close analysis of the entireties of all 3 adaptations, I'm inclined to go with the BBC version. The book, while primarily from Elizabeth Bennett's perspective, does let on that there's more to Darcy than meets the eye or the common opinion. Firth does a very good job of portraying this quality. There's a likability about him, but the viewer (nor Lizzy) doesn't know what it is-- in fact, it's Lizzy who brings this out in him in the book. I think the reader is inclined to like Darcy just a little bit before Lizzy herself...

Parul said...

You convinced me...the first Pride and Prejudice did suck. It's just that I love Greer Garson so much. Perhaps she's the victim of bad direction. She's splendid in other films--i.e. Mrs. Miniver, which Prime Minister Churchill credited as rallying the British people.