I've not made a working blog on Austen -- by which I mean a blog where I work out some thoughts on the Austen movies -- in quite a while. I need to force myself to do this as it's an effective way for me to see what I think about the issues connected to, and films I've been watching and studying.
This summer I may say I've been paying attention to the movement images of which films may be said to be composed and have discovered this is the best way to understand what the movie literally is, and the meanings and art it projects. Only by going slowly through shot by shot do you begin to realize what is there in any conscious way. By studying the movement images in Gwyneth Hughe's Miss Austen Regrets I've noticed a long series of stills showing Olivia Williams at work dreaming and writing her stories.
A morning reverie at Chawton Cottage
These shots punctuate the narrative, and we see gradually it's these bouts at her desk, time during her long walks that gives Austen's life meaning.
Someone has asked about the influence of these movies on Austen's texts and readership. I answered in two ways (see comments), my second required a still from the 1995 Persuasion. Here it is and if you want to know what this is about, read the comments:
Well, in order to understand Joe Wright's film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (2000, Working Title) I've been doing just this kind of scrutiny of movement images. This past weeek I tried my patience by watching the film in slow motion; that is, I took down his audio-commentary and captured lots of stills. The exercise is one that enables a viewer to grasp or understand a movie for real. One thing I picked up which I had been told in passing, but saw more clearly here: Deborah Moggach's script was rewritten for crucial scenes by Emma Thompson, and the fine scenes which actually reflect Austen's book, e.g., Charlotte Lucas's speech (Claudie Blakely does this part better than any Charlotte ever did) justifying herself to Elizabeth aggressively as well as defensively, the actual words of the first proposal-as quarrel scene of Darcy and Elizabeth, and a number of others.
Thompson is not properly credited in either the printed screenplay (available on line) or the movie (she is just thanked specially at the close, rather an enigmatic credit too)..
On Wright's audiocommentary and what he did in his movie: He's a clever guy, too smart to, like Maggie Wadey (who did two film adaptations of Austen, the 87 NA and 07 MP) say that he loathes Austen's text or characters or part of it. What he does is basically ignore it and make statements about the characters which may be true of *his film's characters* but is not at all true of Austen's book. The thing is it sounds plausible in today's climate. The couple of times he refers to specifics in Austen's books (only a couple), it's clear he doesn't respect the books. Of one line by Darcy he says "she thinks this is a joke." He doesn't and he implies the line is misunderstood because most people would not understand her this subrisive angry comment (by Darcy) as a joke. Again he suggests her presentation of the two sisters is not believable. But otherwise he is referring to his reading of the book as if it was Lawrence -- and not acknowledging this at all.
In one of the interviews he gave it becomes obvious that like Ang Lee he was hired to do this film as an up and coming auteur (he had had a big success in the costume drama genre with Charles II, a 4 part mini-series) and himself had no feeling for Austen. But Wright is most unlike Lee: Lee had made films which show a genuine sympathy for familial drama and women (Eat Drink Man Women, Wedding Banquet) and then set about if not to read the book, try to understand it by researching it, all the while his co-producer James Schamus did read it and clearly in the audio-commentary has done all he could to make Emma Thompson's script understandable as a reading of Austen to Lee. Why Lee didn't read it I don't know -- John Alexander, director of teh 2008 S&S and hitherto a director of action-adventure films, read the book and understood where he and DAvies/Pivcevic deviated thematically.
Wright did read the book and from his few direct comments about its content (beyond bland praise) suggest a decided lack of congeniality.. He says the book is about 5 virgins on an island (!), a loving family (!!), and how these women are growing up to want and like sex. When he speaks of Elizabeth after the trip to Pemberley he says she has "it" in the "solar plexus" and directs Knightley to fall against a wall when Darcy and Bingley first return to Longbourne. This is Lawrence male egoism. Genital sex is what women want and need from men and this drive is what his film narrates. We need to remember that Lawrence, like Twain, inveighed against Austen. The same fierce hatred of a womah who is perceived as a virgin who seeks to control men's sexuality and herself presents women who are not jumping into bed with men. A line Moggach kept (the screenplay writer) and to the tone-deaf ears of Wright made no impression is said by Keira Knightley to Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy: "you are the last man I could be prevailed upon to marry ..."
Prevailed upon. A desire for sex and by marriage obtaining it is not at all what Austen is on about: rather it's the necessity for a woman to marry for social and economic survival and because then she is under his thumb, dependent upon him, the desirability of liking him, of finding a decent (aimable, worthy aka ethical kind considerate courteous) man who has an income big enough for them both and children.
However, it's not true to say as so many have, that Madfadyen is a Heathcliff. This is the result of not respecting an thus not paying close attention the film for what it is and then comparing it to the novel. What I've just done for several days. (This is an important film and it influenced the Austen films after it was screened and distributed widely because it was a popular box office success.) Yes in archetype Macfadyen is the tall dark inscrutable desirable hero -- and *so are both Darcy and Heathcliff*. Macfayden is a fine actor and if he has not read the novel, he has understood that there is a problem in the presentation of Darcy's character, and unlike all previous Darcy's his whole performance is calculated on showing us Darcy not so much arrogant as not comfortable in social life (Aspergers anyone?) and over the course of the movie, beginning before he and Elizabeth meet at Rosings, slowing expressing his problem to Elizabeth. In an interview in the feature, Macfadyen said he thought of Darcy as a shy man, someone not eager for social life (that's why he danced only when he must), not good at it -- as he tells Elizabeth at Rosings by the piano.
Austen's book is not perfect! Among the problems (probably caused by that lopping and chopping) is the Darcy we see at Pemberley and afterwards is not the same man as the arrogant cold aristocrat of the scene at the Assembly hall, and we are given no sense of how the evolution happened. Macfadyen plays the character so that the two parts cohere -- he's a good actor and is wonderful as Arthur Clenham in Little Dorrit and Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now -- two very different types of males. Macfayden's typology is like Ralph Fiennes, usually that of a man who is sensitive.
Second problem in Austen's text is that Wickham's letter makes sense and to just dismiss it is to forget Darcy's assertion of his non-forgiveness, the boys growing up, the jealousy; it's all swept under the rug. Wright's Wickham brings this out -- only the actor is not given enough time and space in the film. The audio-commentary suggests some scenes of Wickham and Lydia were cut to make all focus on our romantic pair -- bad idea. Also to keep the film shorter so it would sell widely.
There are others, but it is these two Wright addresses. He is interested in the men in the film. He pities Collins (he says).
Now there are some very good things in this film, and it goes beyond those which came before in different ways and can teach us about some aspects of Austen's books. First, Wright himself - who has read Austen sufficiently to see that Moggach's text is wooden and won't do (and get Thompson to rewrite) in many of the famous crux individual scenes really dramatizes or gets his actors to enact Austen's text more believably than others have. This is partly because he is at dusch a distance from the previous pro-costume versions. I imagine he thought David Rintoul a stick and Firth ridiculous. Macfadyen is never condescending or disdainful; his face is never hard like Rintoul's; he also does not smolder, ride around on a horse close up to us (the stunt man does that) nor shoot guns or fence. He is quiet in his behavior; the most activity we see is him dancing and rehearsing with Bingley Bingley's coming proposal scene with Jane at the end of the film. And he also walks very attractively in vast landscapes.
Wright's quarrel scene about the proposal includes rain as a distraction and the Stourhead park to please silly fools - Wright has no respect for tthis sort of heritage beauty, not epistolary narratives. He knows that his last scene of the kiss went over the top. What he does like is landscape, and interiors of rooms that look lived in - that are filled with the messiness of life's doings, scarves, hats, animals, books, food. He's not that smart because he uses the shibboleth this or that is uncinematic to justify himelf. No one who studies films believes such statements any more. Anything is cinematic you want to film. He means he is bored by say letters, carriages, and (to him) many of the tropes of women's heritage films. But the center of the film -- a number of the humanly dramatic scenes and his direction of the these is persuasive -- as he says, the first proposl of Darcy is like a sudden car crash.
Some of the other actors are also brilliant, either they inhabit Austen's character as effectively as they've ever been done (Judi Dench for Lady Catherine, Blakeley as Charlotte) or they reinterpret the character in a profoundly insightful way: Tom Hollander as Mr Collins.
Rosamund Pike made a try at Jane but she's too soft. Samantha Harker in the 1995 P&P had the character right. This is yet another film where one picks up that Keira Knightley was forced on the director, but that after all, he saw she was superb at a few things and could conform to whatever is wanted. She is good at resentment, at anger, at rigidity and holding her own, say against Judi Dench as Lady Catherine. Against Macfadyen's intelligence and real humility at points, she comes out so smug, I found myself preferring him. That's a perverse reaction to a movie which like the 1979 makes Elizabeth's subjectivity our central concern. Fay Weldon is the only other film-maker to have done this; and it's a telling irony you can make Elizabeth central in both a feminist and anti-feminist reading of Austen's book..
Wright and Moggach see that the previous encounters no matter how well acted were stilted. Moggach's words in the feature show how she disliked Davies's conception of Mrs Bennet (as in Davies's film) as a grating tasteless fool who rather disliked Elizabeth and has no feeling for anyone much beyond herself, except perhaps Lydia, and Austen's Mr Collins is simply not realistic and doesn't fit right in these movies. These caricatures are not funny I would think Wright might say. The result of snobbishness or coldness on Austen's part.
But beyond this, to be sure, Austen's is not a kind book. Fay Weldon tried to make Anne de Bourgh a suffering tyrannized over young woman who longs for some connection to someone outside her mother (and can't reach it). I feel for the way Mary is often presented as flat-chested and ugly: Austen's caricature of a reading girl as stupid invites this kind of thing. It may be her male caricatures of lumpish or tall stupid men (Rushworth comes in here too) show Austen's memories of suitors she didn't want and felt resentful were thrust upon her. Perhaps her sending up Mrs Austen comes from memories of nagging powerful women over her -- this may well include her mother. Were it not that Austen's book is a couple of hundred years old, some of this would not go be acceptable to many modern readers.
But the movie as a whole perverts and undermines all Austen is about. He turns the novel's perception of the experience of life into romantic gush; the talk about the mother is so cloying it makes me sick. Mr Bennet deeply loves all this daughters! Lydia is just all about ribbons. Some of the actors know better, Knightley herself plays the role as someone increasingly alienated from her parents and especially her mother. She is very good as nasty anger, at teenage kinds of resentment and this comes to the fore in this film again and again. She's very smug and by the end of the film I preferred Macfadyen so much over her character I wished he had married Claudie Blakeley (semi-joke alert).
It's no use to inveigh against this film. Unlike Rozema's movie, the 1999 MP, which was a commercial flop, this was a hit. It made a lot of money and has influenced Austen films since. How? it showed you could drop a lot of the conventions (which Ang Lee felt constrained him) and still get not just the young audience to come in (which was wanted) but the older people who come to heritage films. IN Persuasions online there are essays published which defend this film centrally. The person wants to make Austen over and Wright is doing it.
It also is brilliant film making in its own right -- the inside-outside theme and many of the movement images. think this movie is a hodgepodge, something of a mess partly because it's made with such commercial motives and Wright just has no sympathey with women's romance. He made a brilliant movie from Ian McEwan's Atonement -- a book whose thrust is anti-woman with its central heroine someone who criminalizes someone for rape who didn't do it. My studies of rape show me this kind of story is repeatedly common and it's misogynistic in its thrust (you find it in Fielding).
What did I like about Wright's P&P: the long quiet sequences (like at Pemberley):
Everyone is in cream colors here
the quiet moments with that soft piano music in the back:
She is reading First Impressions -- her own story in a sunlit landscape when we first glimpse her, hardly realistic but that's the point
Atonement is a visionary film and this P&P at its real moments with soul is that too. The long meditation she dwells in at Pemberley. Even though Wright wants to call our attention to his big romantic scenes, choice of heritage places, and probably gets a kick out of undermining Austen and turning her book into where heroines reach their ultimate goal when they know male genital sex, his strength is in capturing the intimate when he true to human nature and doesn't gush or pander. Catherine Stewart-Beer puts the film's best moments very well: " Despite its luxuriant aesthetic pleasures and over-blown Romanticism, Wright’s adaptation actually has a stiller heart, a more introspective, shyer presence compared to the lively and engaging dynamics of its textual predecessor. "
There are a series of interesting essays, some very good, in Persuasions Online, V.27, NO.2 (Summer 2007); some are detailed (not impressionistic or playing with metaphors) and describe the film accurately; some did praise it (it was liked -- and has been influential). I recommend reading Carol Dole: Jane Austen and Mud (generally didn't like the film and makes an insightful informative strong case); Catherine Stewart-Beer, "Style over Substance" (the best one); Sarah Ailwood, "What are men to rocks and mountains" (she wants to read Austen as a romantic and this film enables that); Sally Palmer, "Little Women at Longbourne" (she goes over the many divergences); Barbara Seeber, "A Bennet Utopia" (about the sentimentalization of the father especially); Jessie Durgan on cinematography (disappointing because not concrete enough)' David Roches, "Book and Letters" (valuable as a catalogue of these things in the movie).
To sum up, this movie is a hodgepodge, something of a mess partly because it's made with such commercial motives and Wright just has no sympathy with women's romance. He made a brilliant movie in Atonement -- a book whose thrust is anti-woman with its central heroine someone who criminalizes someone for rape who didn't do it. My studies of rape show me this kind of story is repeatedly common and it's misogynistic in its thrust (you find it in Fielding). At the same time it has great moments and for the modern mind a reading of Austen which should make one pause before worshipping her. Her portrait of Collins is overdone.
What's best in the movie are its very movement images themselves, the long quiet sequences (like at Pemberley), the quiet moments with that soft piano music in the back that it begins with: This P&P at its real moments where he's neither misled by Lawrence's "solar plexis" talk nor sentimentalizing the family or siblings or love -- and shows him reaching for psychological intimacy