“I loathe you!”

“And I despise you!”

Pause. Kiss.

That’s the heartbeat (or love/hatebeat) of Pride and Prejudice and it has kept the novel and all its stage and movie versions happily throbbing no matter what else in them works and fails.

Elizabeth Bennet may be the most perfect incarnation of female ambivalence about romance ever created. Initially, she feels no need of a suitor. Though her silly, vulgar mother burns to have all five of her daughters married off, Lizzie is comfortable in her middle-class country life of genteel poverty as long as she has her books, her friends, and the affection of her kind, retiring father and her warmhearted older sister Jane. New neighbors materialize—the wealthy Bingleys (agreeable brother and poisonous sister) and their megawealthy, aristocratic friend, Darcy—and a marital horizon comes into view, but Elizabeth daydreams only on behalf of Jane. When Darcy blocks Bingley’s courtship of Jane, Elizabeth’s prejudice against him (first aroused by his supercilious remarks at a dance) fancifully expands his real haughtiness into unreal villainy, though it’s also clear that the tension between them has a sexual component. Later, when Elizabeth discovers that she has partially misjudged Darcy, her awakening to love is also a voyage into self-discovery.

Though Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, Jane Austen had completed a substantial ur-text called First Impressions by 1797, when she was only twenty-two. Joe Wright, the director of the current film version, may have had this in mind, for this movie glories in youthful buoyancy and a sort of irradiant SteadiCam lyricism. When our heroine strolls through the Lincolnshire countryside contemplating her feelings on top of craggy outcroppings that afford views of gorgeous valleys and sunsets, we are as much in the world of Regency paperback romances as in Jane Austen (though Wright and scriptwriter Deborah Moggach set the story in the era of Austen’s adolescence, because the director preferred eighteenth-century apparel). To be sure, the perpetrators of Regency paperbacks claim Austen (and the Brontës) as their respectable matrix, so this movie may be a case of rendering a great original while tipping one’s hat (a beaver hat, of course) to epigones.

As lush as it is, this film doesn’t completely swoon. Production designer Sarah Greenwood has created a substantial farm for the Bennets. Cinematographer Roman Osin’s roamings through it make clear that Elizabeth draws emotional sustenance and security from her surroundings, and this certifies the idea that our heroine is not looking to romance or marriage as an escape from her home. When her best friend, Charlotte, announces that she’s marrying a man despised and recently rejected by Lizzie, Charlotte is photographed against a background of impressionistic blur, underscoring the social and financial insecurity—the placelessness—that drives an intelligent woman to marry a dolt. Pondering this marital mismatch, Elizabeth sits on a swing that she twirls round and round, and the following point of view gives us a whirling view of the Bennet farm. The shot gradually becomes slower and steadier as the swing unwinds to a standstill and the troubled Lizzie is restored to her sense of herself as a person at ease in her origins. But—or should I say aha!—when Darcy reveals himself as a caring suitor rather than a monster, it is now the background behind Elizabeth that turns impressionistic. Even pleasant surprises can discombobulate.

The writing and the acting of the secondary characters is shrewdly done, though turning Bingley into a dolt was a cheap shot (why would Jane love a twit, and why would Darcy be his best friend?). Judi Dench, aided by harsh lighting in her close-ups, makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh not the customary lovable old dragon but a truly vicious woman. The sycophantic Mr. Collins, usually and legitimately played as an overbearing, fatuous fool, is turned by Tom Hollander into an underbearing toady so in thrall to his social superiors that he has become their two-legged lapdog, an approach no less comic for containing a pinch of pathos. Hollander brings off this novel interpretation marvelously.

The best performance may be that of Donald Sutherland as Lizzie’s father, however. The subtle point of Mr. Bennet’s character is that, for all his kindness and tact, he remains throughout a quiet monster of solipsism, a man who has withdrawn emotionally from his family and doesn’t truly open his heart even to his favorite daughter. He is a simulacrum of a good father. Sutherland understands this and conveys it with every vague smile and flaccid gesture.

Now about the two leads...I’m embarrassed to report that I can’t really judge either of them, though for opposite reasons. Wright and Moggach apparently view Darcy as a redeemable Heathcliff and, along these lines, Matthew MacFadyen may very well do the character justice, but how can I tell when Laurence Olivier (voice of steel, eyes of coal) in the 1940 version is now and forever the only Darcy I can hold in my head? Genius always victimizes talent.

As for Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, I find her spellbinding and—despite her blubbery lips and neurotically tight jaw—devastatingly beautiful. Yet because she is so immediately fetching, I’m unsure of her acting. Has she really probed the inner workings of Elizabeth Bennet or, as I suspect, does the photography and the editing do most of the acting for her? I will venture this: her performance is at one with the overall movie. She and it are coltish, breathless, and self-delighted. The wit of Elizabeth and the wit of Jane Austen are not to be found in abundance in this movie. Nevertheless, there is abundance: of charm, of good-heartedness, and the giddiness that always takes hold on the threshold of first love.

Writing about Akira Kurosawa’s judo movie Sanshiro Sugata, Donald Richie noted that the hero “is in the process of making. Every day he has a new destiny. The villain, on the other hand, has achieved a destiny. In other words, he has become what he thinks he is...a completed sum. He might as well be dead. And it is just for this reason that the unformed but living Sugata is a threat, an object of hatred for him.”

No villains or heroes exist in the gentle comedy-drama Shopgirl, written by Steve Martin and directed by Anand Tucker, but it has exactly the same theme the Japanese film explores. A painter (Claire Danes) supporting herself by clerking in an L.A. division of Saks is courted by two men, one a wealthy computer analyst in his fifties (Martin), and the other a sort of artist (he makes fonts) turned rock ’n’ roll roadie in his twenties (Jason Schwartzman). Danes first has an affair with the youth; while he prepares to tour with a band, she gingerly steps into a relationship with Martin. From then on, the narrative cuts back and forth between the May-September romance in L.A. and the on-the-road awakening of Schwartzman to the fact that he needs Danes and wants to marry her. In the concluding scenes, the younger man returns and the heroine must choose between her men.

The outcome is never in any doubt. (Spoiler alert.) The Steve Martin character is consistently suave, gracious, tender, caring, worldly wise, and a great lover. Schwartzman is consistently clumsy, annoying, egocentric, boorish, naive, and so silly in his puppy-dog amorousness that it doesn’t matter whether he is a skillful lover or not. So it is not only believable but inevitable that Danes chooses...you guessed it, Schwartzman. His nature, under construction, reaches out to Danes’s soul-in-the-making. The millionaire, though a good, in many ways even a wonderful man, has stopped growing. He loves Danes as one loves a great sunset or a recently purchased painting. He wants to include her in his life as a revitalizing component, but he cannot merge his being with hers. So we know what Danes means when, late in the movie, she asks him why he cannot love her.

This film never aims at suspense. It strolls towards Danes’s epiphany with relaxed confidence, pausing every now and then to savor moments of beauty: Danes trying on the first personally tailored dress she’s ever worn in front of the proudly amused Martin, who’s bought it for her; Martin sharing a laugh with some business chums at a deluxe New York executive dinner while Danes, a trophy mistress, languishes in the midst of some trophy wives. Whether the characters are feeling good or bad, the camera seems to be savoring their inner existence while drinking in the atmosphere and décor through which they move.

The acting is uniformly good—Steve Martin, once the apparent successor to Jerry Lewis, has instead attained the wintry elegance of Cary Grant, while Claire Danes is clearly on the verge of goddesshood—but Shopgirl feels more like a ballet than a typical movie, more dependent on sheer visual flow and on lights and shadows than on the achievements of its actors. It’s not out to zap or subdue or even seduce the viewer. It merely exists agreeably, and if you want to enter it, its door is unlocked.

Published in the 2005-12-16 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.