A film that makes us believe in love

- Baby A. Gil () - March 19, 2006 - 12:00am
At a time when writers tended to romanticize their characters and to populate their stories with dashing heroes and beautiful heroines, Jane Austen took the opposite direction. For her novel Pride & Prejudice, she created a young woman who would find it difficult to land a husband. In the words of the hero Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennett, is at best "tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me."

From that time on anybody who read the 17th century novel thought of Elizabeth in less than pretty terms. The second girl in a family of five daughters, all she has for a marriage prospect is a minister with only a decent income to recommend him. She turns down his offer. Mother goes ballistic. Finding moneyed husbands for her girls is the only way the family can save itself from impending penury. Besides, marriage was the end and be-all of a woman’s existence in 1807. Father is nonchalant about the whole thing though. The happiness of his daughters comes first, more so of Elizabeth, who is closest to his own heart.

I like to think though that Austen had something else in mind when she created a heroine who is different from the other women of the period. As characterized in the novel, Elizabeth is devoted to her family, smart, plucky, honest, energetic and thanks to her father, very opinionated. For a man in search of somebody to man the hearth and produce children, she must indeed seem like an ugly nightmare. I see Darcy’s tolerable term as no reference to her looks, but simply the manifestation of his fear of having to match wits with an intelligent woman in the confines of marriage.

This same line of reasoning was also probably what prompted director Joe Wright to cast the dropdead gorgeous Keira Knightley in his reworking of Pride & Prejudice. The move was unexpected but brilliant and ended up with unbelievably realistic results. Wright simply decreed that his Elizabeth is beautiful and you can take it or leave it. Then with that problem solved he proceeds to take movie-goers through a delightful panorama of breathtaking romance, amusing satire and the beauty of old England.

Period films are tricky pieces. Save for a few exceptions, the scenes often resemble old paintings that come to life in studied motion. Nice to look at and nothing more. But just as Zefferelli took Shakespeare out of the stage tableau, Wright sure-handedly coaxed Austen out of a book into dazzling life. The setting is a bygone time but the entire film, most especially the interaction among the characters comes out real.

And there is nothing more real to us than these parts of the plot. Mama wants rich husbands for her daughters because the children should be able to provide for the parents in their old age. Members of the opposite sex no matter how good and attractive can still be seen as unsuitable if they have no money. Rich old ladies are mean and arrogant. So are their female relatives. They look down on poor girls and a poor girl who hobnobs with rich kids will find herself in embarrassing situations. The best way for the rich to quash out social unrest among the poor is to socialize with them. But remember, never, ever make the mistake of falling in love with one of them.

These situations have been part and parcel of stories and photoplays since time immemorial. Think Carmen Rosales to Vilma Santos and down to Kristine Hermosa. Wright however simply presents them in a matter-of-fact manner in Pride & Prejudice. What he glosses over is the unlikely attraction between Darcy and Elizabeth and the result is one heady brew that sweeps you off your feet.

There is nothing new about it. This is Bridget Jones and When Harry Meets Sally and Pretty Woman and nearly every romantic comedy you can think of. But because Wright brilliantly captures that magic moment when love becomes all that matters his Pride & Prejudice works and we are all too happy to be carried off on wings of romance.

So who cares if Darcy has this snobbish aunt in Lady Catherine played by Judi Dench?As portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen, he is shy, good-hearted, heroic and utterly sexy. He also lives in a castle and Mama Bennet played with twittering determination by Brenda Blethyn is delirious with happiness. All those early missteps have resulted in such good fortune for Elizabeth. Darcy can afford to take care of them all and others more. Donald Sutherland’s quiet Mr. Bennet is just glad that his daughters are happy being in love, most especially the headstrong Elizabeth.

As for Keira Knightley, she fills the movie with the luminous glow of a star. As a beautiful Elizabeth, she brings such an infectious joie de vivre to every scene that for some two hours we are willing to believe in love and living happily ever after.

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