Movie Review - Pride &Prejudice (2005)

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
Joe Wright
Working Title Films
for some mild thematic elements

Jane Austen lived and died, and wrote her books, two hundred years ago, at the beginning of a century that has become notorious for its pious fa├žade and its glossing over the true nature of the human heart. Austen could not even have imagined the moral battles that would become the center of political, scholastic and religious debate in the 21st century, the stream of temptations that young women face now, or even their most common pursuits. What could Jane Austen possibly know about the hearts of modern women?

Well, considering that her heroines have become the archetypal image of classic femininity for—not just the romantics and the girls Ecclesiastes 7:10 was written for—but the up-to-date, here-and-now fans of the modern western culture; Jane Austen must have hit on an area of the female heart that is unaffected by society—or on an area of society that simply hasn’t changed since the early eighteen hundreds. I’m inclined to say that she probably did both. There are things that will never change in culture, and things that will never change in the human heart… not all of which are good things.

Sexual Content:
For example, there has always (or, since the Fall, anyway) been a sinful concept of human sexuality—including in Jane Austen’s day, and in her very writings. In Pride & Prejudice, a fifteen-year-old girl runs away with her lover—to the grief of her family and the disapprobation of the audience, of course, but not necessarily on moral grounds. Besides the fornication theme (which was by no means isolated to just this Austen story), dancing is the only potentially offensive element in this category that was already present in the book. Dancing as an opportunity to hold someone’s hand for an extended period of time, or as a means of introducing a more desire-based aspect to a couple’s relationship, is, however, more clearly expressed in the film.

There are several immodest costumes in this version of the movie, and by “several” I do, of course, mean “several.” While not much more revealing than other scenes, the ones exposing the characters’ underclothes (including the love scene toward the end, in which Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy meet at dawn, out of doors—she in her nightgown, and he with his shirt unfastened most of the way down his chest) add a subtle, extra element of sensuality that should probably cause a bit of discomfort on the viewers’ part—likewise, the fleeting image of a gentleman fingering a young lady’s dress in public. The probably-meant-to-be-comedic slip of the tongue, when the pastor shortens the phrase “the intercourse of friends” to just the word “intercourse” in the middle of his sermon, is so awkwardly unnecessary (besides being inappropriate) that it will most definitely cause discomfort, if only briefly.

There are six kisses in Pride & Prejudice (two, if you only count those on the lips)—always married actors kissing unmarried actresses. There is also some moderate touching and embracing, and an almost-kiss (which will be addressed further in quite a different category).

To get to the point about the sexual content, though, I must say that the element I find most offensive in this category is the complete nudity. Honestly, I don’t think it matters all that much whether human nakedness is displayed in “real life” or only in a piece of film… or on somebody’s living-room wall… or their ceiling… or their personal art gallery. The murals on Lady Catherine’s walls and on Mr. Darcy’s foyer ceiling exhibit as much of the human form as can actually be shown from just one perspective at a time. And it’s not a question of the filmmakers just ignoring the “artwork” around them; one scene involves Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet gazing at full-length, fully-unclothed male statues for a very deliberate length of time.

Getting back to the antiquity of sin, we might add that, while we don’t have a record of the first official instance of profanity in the world, we do have the account of the first time mankind failed to honor the Lord, which is pretty close. About six-thousand years later, we find that the majority of the references to the Almighty God in Pride & Prejudice are flippant (not that the rest of them were really meant to be taken seriously). The Lord’s name is taken in vain three times in the movie—one-fourth the number of deliberate profanities in the book. In addition, there is a “Good heavens,” a “By heavens,” a couple of “For heaven’s sake,” a single “Heavens,” and a “Heaven and earth” by way of variety. There is a “My goodness” somewhere in the movie, and a character calls himself an ass for his folly. Lying plays a small part in the film; mockery a rather bigger part.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
If the use of alcohol had been shown in the same light in this adaptation of Pride & Prejudice as in previous ones, I would have simply stated that there is drinking, and there is occasional drunkenness (another ancient sin), though not portrayed in a positive or comical way. The drunkenness is, however, more widespread here than in the other movies, and the general interest in alcohol is stronger, even among those who do not use it to excess.

Indeed, with an irritable, irresponsible father who chases down the fellow serving the wine at the dance, and with a mother who (when she isn’t bringing on or recovering from a hangover) can’t stop boasting about her daughters’ love-lives or complimenting people on the expensiveness of their furniture, is it to be wondered at that our main character, Elizabeth Bennet, despises her parents? Not exactly, but it’s not to be excused, either. In the Pride & Prejudice of 2005, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are given their least complimentary interpretations; but then, given her even-less-appropriate-than-usual attitude toward them in this version, we might say the same of Elizabeth Bennet. Rolling the eyes is typical of the character, as is the look of mixed superiority and scorn. She is given lines like “My family is having a competition to see who can expose themselves to the most ridicule,” “[My sister] may well perish with the shame of having such a mother,” and “Oh, for once in your life, leave me alone!”—to a confidant, her own mother, and her entire family, in that order.

Some of the conflict between Elizabeth and her parents was written into the book, and actually a somewhat pivotal part of the story, as when she refuses to marry the man her mother had chosen for her. This version, though, gives her more of a martyr’s position than the others. Scenes like the one of Elizabeth sitting on the other side of the room, by herself, while her mother and three of her sisters share one sofa and talk gibberish, accentuate the inappropriate distance she maintains in her relationship with her family; and elements like one character’s smug reference to the six Bennet ladies as “every Bennet in the country,” and another character’s sudden and unhappy marriage because she is “twenty-seven years old and… already a burden to my parents,” could easily communicate the filmmakers’ faulty view of family in general.

The disdain for “Fordyce’s Sermons [to Young Women],” the liberty even the best characters feel to whisper gossip through a boring sermon in church, the ridiculousness and exaggerated show of piety in the pastor himself, and Mrs. Bennet’s being the only one to approach sincerity in her praise to the Lord (and that only for the chance of getting a daughter married off), could also communicate a faulty view of Christianity.

The at times conspicuous absence of decorum, dignity and cleanliness will at best communicate an overcompensating reaction to nineteenth-century romanticism. “Slovenly” may be a rather strong word to apply to the Bennet home, but I’m not inclined to think it would be inaccurate. Young women shoving each other as they run through the house; an older woman gazing absentmindedly at an uncut boar walking under her very roof; the most dignified ladies in the house walking barefoot in the mud or eating dinner with their fingers, elbows on the table, in front of guests; no one standing straight-backed and almost everyone walking with long strides—I don’t think you’re really supposed to notice it much. Whether we notice the difference in the atmosphere or not, it’s definitely introducing an element of disorder and unrest to the movie’s portrait of femininity and home life.

A faulty view of love is another one of the primal effects of sin in the world that has carried through to our present times without skipping over Jane Austen’s lifetime. Elizabeth Bennet is the character most committed to the idea of marrying for love, and that of only the “deepest” sort, and yet she looks quite disgusted to see her parents kiss, and smilingly talks of every man in the room being in love with her sister for no other reason than her external beauty. And then there is that almost-kiss I mentioned.

Pride & Prejudice is not the only film or book to subject its characters to the complex workings of Romantic Tension—complex because it tries to unite love and hate, attraction and repulsion in the same relationship. Scenes like the one involving an angry and embittered couple, who have just declared themselves in a state of enmity toward each other, coming that close to kissing, are very effectual in redefining “love” as a feeling that comes and goes—that doesn’t need a basis in virtue, harmony of personalities or even common courtesy—that is largely physical, and basically inexplicable. And as long as everyone understands that both parties were to blame, neither of them actually have to repent, at least in this version of the story. Being “bewitched… body and soul” isn’t the same thing as being in love, and without communicating repentance or forgiveness, it’s just a matter of time until the spell is broken (even if you can get your husband to call you “goddess divine” on special occasions). And considering that “unforgiving statements” are given a “Bravo!” by the main character of the movie, I’m inclined to think the only thing that keeps Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s romance from falling apart is that it’s strictly fictional.

So, what did Jane Austen understand about the human heart, and the culture that nurtures it? We could say that she understood a lot of true and good things about them; she certainly understood the negative effects of pride and prejudice on the individual and on the culture. But, amidst all the positive things we may like about Jane Austen—the appreciation of the female intellect, the critique of timeless social ills like gossip and pretentiousness, the happy endings and the engaging characters—we have to stop and remind ourselves that not everything about Pride & Prejudice was praiseworthy.

When a story like Pride & Prejudice is brought over into the medium of film, we also have to stop and ask, What did the director understand about Jane Austen? In this case, he apparently understood enough about her to uphold all nineteen of the most problematic worldview themes in Jane Austen’s literary works. He understood, and might have even exaggerated a little, Austen’s feminism and her negative portrayals of family and church life. He evidently knew enough about Jane Austen to incorporate her dislike of the word “female” into the movie, and enough about Elizabeth Bennet to emphasize the aspects of her character that the audience can most easily sympathize with—which, if we’re honest, tend to be the areas of her character that are the least conformed to the image of Christ… if indeed the Elizabeth Bennet of the twenty-first century has any interest in Christ.

Pride & Prejudice feels a great deal like a film made about unbelievers, by unbelievers. I find that somewhat awkward. The main characters have so few good qualities, and so many unresolved bad ones; the romance the entire story is built on is such a poor example of Christian love and commitment; and there are so many other problems with the movie, I find it no longer has any appeal for me. I don’t think, however, that I would engage in debate with someone who told me they still believe there is something worthwhile to it. As far as age recommendation goes (well, recommendation is a strong word), I would say that Lizzie is so far from being a good role model for young women that I definitely wouldn’t suggest this version of Pride & Prejudice for anyone under the age of twelve.

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