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Jane Austen novels on DVDBY: Robert J. Murphy 01.30.2010
Jane Austen’s impenetrable prose is difficult to slog through— but her novels translate marvelously to the screen, as two DVD adaptations remind us. This is no accident. Long before the invention of cinema, Austen understood— as, say, Dostoyevsky or Proust or Mailer did not— the power of visual imagery.
Pride and Prejudice. A film directed by Joe Wright; screenplay by Deborah Moggach (2005). On DVD at www.amazon.com.
Sense and Sensibility. A film directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by Emma Thompson (1995). On DVD at www.amazon.com.
Jane Austen is ready for her close-up
Jane Austen’s best-known novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), are in certain central ways almost the same book.
In both books we find two close-knit sisters of marriageable age concerned with little more than capturing the ideal mate. And in both, class and money figure prominently: No sooner is a major male character introduced than, within a page or two, someone informs the others in the room— likely including the young women— of the fellow’s yearly income.
For those loathe to slog through Austen’s almost-impenetrable prose— archaic nearly to the point of requiring translation— we’re fortunate to have access to DVD versions of what are, by any estimation, highly entertaining character studies and narratives. If you read the books and then watch their screen adaptations, you come away with a sense that here’s one author whose work actually translates well to the screen.
Perhaps that’s because nearly everything Austen writes occurs on the surface. No doubt she conveys character with great skill, primarily through dialogue and physical description. Yet nowhere do you find inner torment or rapture expressed through a character’s thoughts.
Taking to the bed
In Sense and Sensibility, we read of Marianne’s emotional belly flop after she’s tossed aside by Willoughby through external description: weeks confined to a bed. In Pride and Prejudice, we learn of Elizabeth’s early loathing of Darcy primarily by her dagger-sharp remarks. This is hardly to slight Austen’s talents or methods: Many great authors have worked in the same way. Dickens and Harper Lee come to mind.
(One possible exception: Salinger’s Franny and Zooey—never filmed— which might work on the screen if you could find the right director and performers to pull it off, not to mention an author willing to license the movie rights.)
Just the right actors
What a pleasure, then, to come across two fairly recent film versions of the above two Austen novels on DVD that appear to have just the right actors cast in the key roles, with screenplays that capture the books’ pivotal moments and that present it all with gorgeous period costumes and dazzling scenery of the English countryside.
The 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility— directed by Ang Lee, with a screenplay by Emma Thompson— casts Thompson as the sensible yet reserved sister Elinor, and the then-little-known Kate Winslet as Elinor’s volcanic and mercurial and all-too-vulnerable sister Marianne. Alan Rickman brilliantly brings to life the taciturn yet noble Colonel Brandon, while Hugh Grant— at first you wonder, what on earth is he doing here?— nicely portrays Elinor’s diffident suitor Edward. His proposal to Elinor near the film’s end occasions an unforgettable and seemingly interminable outburst of joyous tears from Thompson— a reminder, if any were necessary, of the British actress’s inestimable talents.
Keira Knightley’s magnetism
But it’s Keira Knightley’s performance as Elizabeth in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice that inevitably stays with you long after the credits have rolled. You might imagine Austen herself sitting with the casting director during Knightley’s audition and shouting, “She is it!”
No doubt an actor or actress who steps before the camera to portray a character from any book must as a matter of course have read the book, perhaps multiple times. In Knightley’s case, you get the sense that she somehow read into Elizabeth’s character to such an extent that she managed to identify in the deepest imaginable way with the young woman’s torment and ultimate emotional transformation.
Elizabeth Bennett, like many of Austen’s young female characters, is clearly a highly intelligent individual, a testament to what we would now call home schooling if we can imagine that few girls received any formal education in early-19th-Century provincial England. And Knightley nicely embodies this intelligence, assisted of course by the wonderfully well-targeted bon mots that Austen gave her character.
Darcy’s worthy match
But Knightley’s performance transcends line readings of clever dialogue. She lends the role an intelligence that seems inherent, unbidden, natural. And this is critical to the role, because Elizabeth must offer the aristocratic and educated and well-bred and fabulously wealthy Darcy ample reason to marry— as they used to say (and some may still do)— “beneath himself.”
Yes, you think, she’s a worthy match for such a man. The actress’s jawline and chin appear as if sculpted by an artist of the highest rank, and her mouth does interesting things when she speaks.
Knightley, at least in a role where she plays a middle-class provincial English girl, may not appear as a classic beauty on the order of, say, Vivien Leigh or Jean Simmons or Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn. Yet hers is a face that in close-up draws your attention and holds it. You cannot turn away. Which persuasively explains why Darcy couldn’t either.♦
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