Tuesday 17 February 2015

Movie Review: Pride And Prejudice (1940)

An adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride And Prejudice is an enchanting romance, combining sparkling touches of humour with clever commentary about men and women engaged in pitched battles of attraction across class lines.

The time is England circa 1830, and the village of Meryton is abuzz with news of the arrival of the rich and eligible Mr. Bingley (Bruce Lester), his sister Caroline (Frieda Inescort) and his even more rich and more eligible friend Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier). Particularly interested in the newcomers is Mrs. Bennet (Mary Boland), who is raising five girls, and none of them are yet married.

Mrs. Bennet: Look at them! Five of them without dowries. What's to become of them?
Mr. Bennet: Yes, what's to become of the wretched creatures? Perhaps we should have drowned some of them at birth.

Mr. Bingley quickly sets his eyes on eldest daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), and that relationship flourishes. But Darcy carries the condescending attitude of the very rich, and although he expresses interest in wooing the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (Greer Garson), she wants nothing to do with his arrogance.

Elizabeth: At this moment it's difficult to believe that you're so proud.
Mr. Darcy: At this moment it's difficult to believe that you're so prejudiced.

Darcy and Elizabeth dance around their mutual attraction, often clashing and repelling each other. Meanwhile there is trouble in the Bennet household, where due to the lack of male heirs the estate is being inherited by the distasteful Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper). He also sets his eyes on proposing to Elizabeth. But a ruinous scandal appears to strike the family when younger sister Lydia (Ann Rutherford) runs off with an unscrupulous military man, seemingly destroying Elizabeth's chances of ever finding happiness.

As directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Pride And Prejudice does everything right in adapting the book to the screen. The story is simplified, entire characters and events from the novel are deleted, and the narrative is streamlined to fit into a compact package that clocks in at just under two hours. The primary focus is maintained on Elizabeth and Darcy, although the secondary characters contribute plenty of entertaining support.

The screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin is based on the Helen Jerome dramatization for a stage production, and the crisp dialogue exchanges contribute to a film where clever wit comes to the fore. Leonard also does a remarkable job of expanding the film's scope with numerous locations, settings and outdoor scenes, creating a rich visual experience to complement the exuberant dresses on display. The wardrobe design deserves a special mention, as Pride And Prejudice is a showcase of women's fashions from around 1830. The hats and dresses are memorable for their ridiculous sizes and flourishes, often dwarfing the actresses.

The story celebrates women's independence, as represented by the proud, headstrong, outspoken and exceptionally smart Elizabeth. A remarkable character for 1940, never mind 1830, Elizabeth stands up for herself and for her family, and is willing to give up a very rich potential husband unless she is assured that he will marry her for all the right reasons. Greer Garson brings Elizabeth to life with a winning combination of civil strength and self-belief. Laurence Olivier is more stiff, in keeping with Darcy's rigid adherence to the rules of behaviour manufactured for the most wealthy.

Elizabeth: Oh, if you want to be really refined, you have to be dead. There's no one as dignified as a mummy.

All around Elizabeth are others who are more traditionally engaged in the courtship dance of the times, and the film shines in portraying the ridiculous protocols, customs and attitudes of English men and women looking for their life mates. In a class-obsessed society, the upper classes want to look down their noses at the middle class riffraff, but can't help but follow their hearts even if it means holding their figurative noses to mingle with ordinary folk.

Caroline Bingley: Entertaining the rustics is not as difficult as I feared. Any simple, childish game seems to amuse them excessively.

Pride And Prejudice is a brisk romp through the world of romantic quests in difficult societal terrain, a place where eras change, but the complexities and pitfalls stay the same.

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