Saturday, November 26, 2005

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" though first published in 1813 was in fact written in 1796-97 and originally entitled "First Impressions". It has consistently been Jane Austen's most popular novel and portrays life in the genteel but rural English society of the late 18th and early 19th century. It tells in a memorable way the story of the initial misunderstandings and later mutual enlightenment between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. The title "Pride and Prejudice" refers particularly to the ways in which Elizabeth and Darcy first view each other, but it applies equally to the way a class-oriented society works and gets in the way of people of different socio-economic strata really getting to know each other.

Jane Austen's gave her own opinion of the work, in a letter to her sister Cassandra immediately after its publication stressing: "Upon the whole... I am well satisfied enough. The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants [i.e. needs] shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style".

This story is indeed bright, and mostly cheerful, in a way that the recently released "Oliver Twist" is not. Though there are some cads in Jane Austen's masterpiece, there is no real wickedness to be confronted, unlike in "Oliver Twist". It is no easy thing to successfully film a classic novel, but I am happy to say that this film nearly lives up to the level of the novel itself, and is well worth repeated viewings. It is beautifully shot in the English countryside, and all the major actors are superb including Kira Knightley who plays Lizzy Bennet, and Donald Sutherland who plays her father in a truly fetching way. Judy Dentsch is also her usual formidable self, playing a part very akin to the approach she took to playing the Queen in one of her last period pieces-- that is, as "la femme tres formidable."

The movie is just over two hours in length and gives the viewer plenty of time to evaluate what it must have been like to be a woman without money in a highly patriarchal and class conscious society. Barring some miracle it meant being a woman "without prospects". Though Austen was no feminist in the modern sense, she does an excellent job of portraying the plight of women caught in such a world, and bargained for between the suitor and the father of the family. Fortunately for Lizzy, she had a kind and goodly father who wanted the best for his five girls.

It is easy to become beguiled by the lavish and beautiful settings, manor houses, countryside, gorgeous apparel and the like, not to mention the beautiful way this movie is filmed. It should surely win an award for cinematography especially for the ball room dancing scenes. But this is a story with substance, not just style, and one must not get too distracted by the beauty of the package. This is a story about how love overcomes pride and prejudices, and even mistaken or false first impressions. Indeed, it is a story about how love conquers all.

There is as a well a Christian message hidden in this story, besides the obvious message about the transformative power of love, because there is a Reverend Collins in this movie, who while not an upper class twit, is nonetheless a twit totally in the thrall of his patroness who has granted him his "living" a nice parsonage and a lovely parish church. He is indeed a kept man, and it reminds us of how Christian ministers can become captives to the social systems of their day, and find themselves running to the beck and call of the wealthy persons who make their "living" possible. It is not a flattery image that emerges of clergy completely co-opted by the larger social culture, but then this was not just a vice of 18th and 19th century clergy--- we see it a plenty today, especially in the larger and mega-churches in North America. When sermons are seen as a means to ethically civilize and pacify the clientele so that society may remain as inequitable as it always was, then we see the extent to which the Gospel can become captive to the larger agendas of the culture, indeed can become the chief purveyors of those often anti-Christian values. As Pogo once said "I have seen the enemy, and he is us."

But lest I get too carried away with moralizing about bad and unethical homiletical moralizing, I must say that this is a movie all Christians can and should see to understand better the power of love, and also the way the Gospel can be neutralized in "such a civilized manner". It is appropriate for all audiences of any age as it completely eschews any violence, bad language, or gratuitous sex. In fact the climax of the movie is a simple and beautiful kiss, which reminds us that less is often so much more in a well-told tale. These sorts of movies are rare these days, and deserve to be supported. We may hope that Hollywood will have the "sense and sensibility" to film another of Austen's classics soon.


Irenicum said...

Bravo! I couldn't agree more. I saw the movie Saturday evening and was struck by the utter grandeur of the scenery. The whole film had a balltic feel, in that it moved effortlessly throughout. Each character was fully their own, and I agree, Southerland was masterfully understated in his portrayal of a somewhat distant but loving father. The mother reminded me quite a bit of CS Lewis' account of Mrs. Fidget from his "Four Loves". Over all, a wonderful movie that everyone should see.


Ben Witherington said...

I quite agree, and hopefully many will see it.

Tim Chesterton said...

Ben, I've posted a comment on the movie on my blog at - I concentrate a bit more on comparing this movie to the A&E miniseries and to the original novel.