October 20, 2011

Pride and Prejudice

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Long before the genre “chick flick” even existed, Jane Austen was already penning the stories that would form the core of this gendered genre. From TV mini-series, to major motion pictures, Austen’s stories have provided the inspiration for many so-called female films. The most recognizable of her books-turned–moviesis Pride and Prejudice. The first film version came in 1940. And ever since then, almost like clockwork, every decade or so brings another new version. According to IMDB, the next incarnation we have to look forward to is Pride and Prejudice Zombies, a new (gimmicky) twist on Austen’s tale, set to be released in 2013.

The version I’d like to discuss today, though, is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, which starts the sublime Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett. I can already imagine a collective eye-roll on the part of Cornell’s male population…

Indeed, (incorrect!) stigmas of Jane Austen’s work have almost demanded that “masculine” men overlook her as a writer. Or, even more tragically, lump her into the category of “girly” writers— included only in English classes to give more balance to syllabi otherwise dominated by white males. I distinctly remember my high school English class being divided across gender lines when we read Pride and Prejudice. The girls on one side of the room were swooning, the boys, on the other, were sighing bored sighs.

But this doesn’t need to be the case. I recognize, and appreciate,  (to borrow the word of a male friend) the “dudely” dislike of Pride and Prejudice. I get it. I just think it’s unfounded.

True, Pride and Prejudice is at its core a romance. A sweeping, epic romance. But does this make it feminine?

Love, difficult love, love that crosses boundaries and overcomes obstacles—  these are the tropes not only of Pride and Prejudice, but also, of much literary and film production. If focusing on these themes makes you girly, then isn’t Shakespeare girly? Petrarch?

True, Pride and Prejudice centers on female relationships. Much of the story, and in turn the film, focuses on the Bennett sisters and their friend Charlotte Lucas. But are the bonds of female companionship and sisterhood so foreign, so different, that men cannot appreciate them? If we use that logic, then shouldn’t male-centered stories alienate women? I know I laughed just as much as the next person in the mega-male mega-hit The 40 Year Old Virgin (released the same year, incidentally, as Pride and Prejudice). I identified with the main characters and their relationships, despite the fact that they had, well, penises— and boy! did they use them, too.

Moreover, seeing Pride and Prejudice in just these motifs would be to miss a lot. Pride and Prejudice is also about class, and (how apt!) the confinements of gender roles. The characters work through complex issues, ones that we still face today.

Joe Wright’s version, as much as any re-telling of Pride and Prejudice can, tries to universalize Aus­ten’s story, and make it appealing to today’s aud­ience. For one, he ditches the exaggerated period costumes. Unlike the BBC mini-series with Colin Firth (the other most famous version of P&P) Wright sexes his characters up a bit. Gone are the odd hairstyles. Gone too, are dresses that would be ugly by modern standards. According to an interview with costume designer Jacqueline Durran, Wright found the high waistline of early nineteenth-century British fashions simply too unflattering— so he lowered it.

Keira Knightley also embodies a new—more femme fatale— kind of Elizabeth Bennett. In the book, Liza Bennett is not meant to be the beauty of the family. She is described as attractive, but in an everyday sort of way, completely outdone by her older sister Jane. She is certainly not supposed to be stunning, which Knightley undeniably is.

Wright’s version also reworks the relationship between Liza Bennett and her Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden) a bit. Though the pairing is described even in the novel as a pairing of wits— here, the energy, and connection between the two characters exceeds that. It is a tangible force— felt not only in the dialogue, but also in the actors’ physical presences.

This tension, so-to-speak, culminates in, in the American version, a post-marriage (and implied, post-coital) scene. The two newlyweds sit on a balcony outside their bedroom, and discuss what pet names they should give each other now that they are husband and wife.

Though this additional scene was widely panned, it adds a new, underexplored dimension to these characters’ relationship. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked the addition, but it serves a purpose that fits into Wright’s overall take on the story.

So, have the courage to try out a so-called girly film. You may just discover that there’s something universal about it…

Original Author: Hannah Stamler