I’d like to share my thoughts on two Jane Austen movies before the end of the year: Pride and Prejudice, 2005 and Clueless, 1995.
Pride and Prejudice 2005 premiered in November ten years ago in the U.S.. I recall watching the film with two members of our Jane Austen book club. The three of us felt less than “whelmed.” We usually eat dinner after a movie and discuss the film in detail. I recall very little discussion other than sharing our sense of disappointment. Keira Knightley seemed too thin and modern as Lizzie. Matthew MacFadyen was no Colin Firth, not his fault, I suppose, but damning in our eyes.
Ten years later, my opinion of the film has changed somewhat. I have come to appreciate that Joe Wright was trying to reach an audience much younger than the members in my book club. That he targeted his audience correctly is proven by the numerous fan clubs that sprang up around the film, the tens of thousands of creative and interesting icons that were created to represent P&P 2005 characters, the many discussion forums and blogs that dedicated reams of information about the film and its actors, and the many nominations the film received at award shows (although I find Keira Knightley’s Academy Award nomination for best actress perplexing). One cannot fault the film’s cinematography and music, which were lush and gorgeous. Has England ever looked more romantic? – its ancient, gnarled oaks, sweeping vistas, misty fields lit by rising suns, and grand houses never looked lovelier on film.
Let’s not forget that PROPOSAL scene in the rain. One cannot deny the chemistry between Keira and Matthew. Pure unrequited lust sprang off the screen.
There was also a lovely scene in which Lizzie rotates on a swing in an archway as the seasons of the year swirled past. While this scene was short, it provided a unique visual of the passing seasons.
Finally, finally, this film delivered an actress as beautiful and sweet as the Jane Bennet of my imagination! I will be forever grateful to Joe Wright for hiring Rosamund Pike for the part and pairing her with the first true puppy-like Mr. Bingley.
Film directors are not expected to follow an author’s vision religiously. After all, film is a visual medium, whereas the author relies on words to stimulate our imaginations. BUT. Please. Did Jane Austen really mean for the Bennets to live in a moated manor house, with pigs, geese, and cattle meandering through a muddy courtyard?
While I adore Donald Sutherland as an actor, at 70 he was more suited to playing Mr. Bennet’s elderly uncle than Mrs. Bennet’s husband. He also interpreted Mr. Bennet as still having the hots for Mrs. Bennet, despite her irritating personality, a modern POV, to be sure, but surely not in keeping with what we know about Mr. Bennet’s huge disappointment with his wife’s foolishness (and with himself for choosing such a ninny)?
While Lizzie was definitely a tomboy compared to her sisters, did she HAVE to be shown walking barefoot or slogging through the fields and dragging her hems through mud and dew so often? Austen, in demonstrating Lizzie’s loyalty to Jane, devised a scene where Lizzie walked through 3 miles of wet fields to be with her sister. This caused Miss Bingley to note with disdain that her petticoat was six inches deep in mud. The Bennets, while upper class, were not super rich. Cloth was not easily obtained or cheap. Clothes were made, remade, reused, and worked over, until the cloth became so threadbare that it was used for cleaning. So, for Lizzie to be shown muddying her hems in so many scenes makes no sense. Her gowns would need repeated washings, which, with the strong lye soaps of the day, would have degraded the cloth too quickly for practicality. She would surely have pinned her dress and train up, exposing only the petticoat, or worn a shorter day gown, as so many commoners and country folk did. Perhaps I am being too much of a stickler, but these lapses in logic affected my experience of the film the first time around and they still do.
One more rant. It’s become de rigueur in historical films to dress dowagers in the richly made, old-fashioned clothes of their younger years (think of Violet, the dowager countess in Downton Abbey and Judith Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in this film). We get that. My mom still wears serviceable but outdated clothes from the 1980s, but can there be any excuse for dressing Miss Bingley in a nightgown for the Netherfield Ball and arranging her hair in a 1960’s updo?
In my opinion, this 2-hour adaptation of a 200+ page novel falls short when compared to the 1995 six-hour P&P. In 2005, Wickham was given very short shrift, as were the younger Bennet sisters. The scenes moved too fast, though I suppose this suited director Joe Wright’s intent, since he was targeting an audience that can barely remember life before fast-paced electronic games, instant messages, and music videos.
My final beef is with the alternative American ending. Mr. Wright insulted many serious fans of classic literature across the Pond with the final dialogue between Lizzie and Darcy, which lowered their romance to the level of a Barbara Cartland novel.
I still don’t like P&P 2005 half as much as P&P 1995. Yet, despite my misgivings, P&P 2005 has held up relatively well and I think younger viewers still prefer this adaptation to P&P 95. The second film on my mind is Clueless, which premiered several months ahead of Pride and Prejudice 1995 in the U.S., and which also targeted the young theater goer.
Amy Heckerling’s 90’s take on Jane’s meddlesome Emma is as fresh and funny today as it was then. It’s hard to choose which is more ridiculous: the slang of the 90’s valley girl airheads, the over-the-top fashions, the conspicuous consumption of LA teen culture, the banality of Cher’s high school education, the immature boyfriends, or the neutered adults.
Who can forget Cher’s mugging, where she resists lying down on the ground in her designer outfit, even with a gun to her head? Or how Heckerling turned Frank Churchill into Christian, a disco-dancing, Oscar-Wilde-reading, Streisand-ticket-holding-friend-of-Dorothy cake boy?
As Dion reminds Cher, “He does like to shop and the boy can dress.” Cher’s classic reply to Christian’s being gay? “Oh, my God, I’m totally buggin’!” Then there’s the girls’ inability to drive in LA, where driving is as essential as breathing. Those scenes are still classic and not to be missed.
Amy Heckerling did a smart thing in reinterpreting Emma. She brought Jane’s heroine over to California and gave her a different name, and moved her from a dull, country town and dropped her in the center of Beverley Hills, the Mecca for consumption-driven materialists.
Like Emma, Cher is motherless. Whereas Emma’s mama died a natural death, Cher’s mom died from the complications of liposuction on a plastic surgeon’s table. Both Cher and Emma are rich, bored, and meddlesome. Cher babies her father, much as Emma caters to Mr. Woodhouse. In Clueless, Cher’s father, a lawyer, is more dynamic than Mr. Woodhouse. One senses that he tolerates Cher’s mothering more than needs it. The love between them is palpable, and Cher’s kindness to one and all is genuine and sweet. These traits save her shallow character.
There are many similarities between the Emma characters and Clueless characters, and it’s fun to guess in the film who is who. You can tell from my excited tone how much I like this cinematic take of Emma. Clueless is a broad satire that seldom delves below the surface. The film is a feel good movie designed to give the viewer a rollicking good time.
Clueless has the same energy, sense of fun, and satiric take on human foibles as Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. I wonder if Amy Heckerling, having lumbered through all 400+ pages of Emma, turned to Jane’s juvenile stories for inspiration? They are filled with zany plots and joie de vivre. I wonder if she decided to meld the boisterous tone of Jane’s youthful stories with the more layered and complex plot of Emma. Meld? I think not. I think Amy gleefully tossed Emma’s subtext aside in favor of a bit of fun.
I am curious, gentle readers, about your take on both films. Do you agree or disagree with my assessments? Please let me know.