The hate that dare not speak its name is, of course, love. This is an ancient principle in romantic comedy or romantic romance -- it's summed up in the phrase applied by others when a man and woman begin their relationship by spitting venom at each other: "Just get a room!" -- and it seems to derive mostly from Jane Austen's fabled "Pride and Prejudice," in which Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy begin as fiery opponents and end up as married lovers.
It's not quite the taming of a shrew, because in Austen's worldview, leading ladies of beauty and wit weren't shrews and never had to be tamed, but merely loved and respected, and good things would follow. That's the main trajectory of "Pride," although digressions include the fate of her four sisters, her obnoxious mother, her passive, amused father, various other suitors, and the whole of English rural society as the 18th century turned into the new and modern 19th. This was a social world that seemed based on a kind of distaff agriculture: One sustained one's expensive estate by breeding progeny in large number, then marrying them off to rich people.
The story is given an interesting, even diverting treatment in a new film version, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew MacFadyen as the initially dour, snotty Mr. Darcy.
Is it as good as the superb BBC miniseries of 1995 starring Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy and Colin Firth as Darcy? How the hell would I know? Do you think I watched it? Get serious. Life's way too short for five hours in front of the tube watching ponces and twits flounce and scrape and talk tony Brit. However, many learned people say it is not as good, and that would therefore become my official position.
Still, I have to say, for a movie about ponces and twits flouncing and scraping and talking tony Brit, this version of "Pride & Prejudice" is pretty entertaining. One thing is clear from the very start, when we glimpse Lizzy wandering in from the fields to the manse amid a fleet of filthy, clucking, pecking, scabby chickens -- universal symbol for rural dissolution: This ain't your grandma's "Pride & Prejudice." It's not that Austen's great novel has been modernized (that was tried, most notably in "Bridget Jones's Diary," in which Colin Firth, again, played the Darcyesque character). Rather, it's been merged with another tradition in costume filmmaking, which gives it a kind of dissonance that will be felt most painfully by Austen's many admirers: Her world has been masculinized. Why, it's as if director Wright made this film off the jolt of inspiration he received from watching Tony Richardson's fabulous, bawdy, rambunctious "Tom Jones," of 1963.
Films derived from Austen are pure Regency, set in that safe if rigid age, 1811 to 1820, even if the book itself was written in 1796 and 1797. The disconnect is perhaps relevant; the book was published in 1813, and therefore took on a Regency cast; the movie is set in 1797 and is full of Georgian energy. Regency works tend to emphasize social control, witty dialogue, parlor maneuvers, trysts, alliances, flirtations, and are set in a decorous indoor world, with the rigidity of the homes -- with their multitude of tastefully appointed rooms -- standing for the rigidity of society. Georgian pieces, by contrast, are full of the pleasures of the flesh, both eating and rubbing. ("Tom Jones" was set in the bawdy, rambunctious 1740s.) Regardless, Austen's themes usually involve some plucky middle-class jeune fille getting the best of some snarky upper-class snot -- but not in a bad way. Austen wasn't a revolutionary: She didn't want to bring the whole thing down and send the wig-wearers in tumbrels to Madame Guillotine, but merely open up the accessways to security and respect a degree or two.
Wright's 1797 therefore is a boisterous, loud, dance-mad, crowded kind of place, full of ruddy-faced peasants, dirt and hay (everywhere), lots of animals waiting to be eaten. It's not a very polite world. The whole thing feels like it was art-directed by Brueghel on holiday. No minuets or waltzes here, but spirited, flashy, almost cloglike dances by firelight. You see this in the earthy, less than genteel performances offered by Brenda Blethyn and a shaggy, bewhiskered Donald Sutherland as Bennets mere et pere. You see it also in the gamboling tribe of young girls, the constant bickering as voices crowd out voices.
Oh, it'll make purists insane, as will the insistence on playing most of the scenes outdoors as opposed to in candle-lit rooms amid silk damask and vellum books. But in a sense it's necessary: Knightley is too vast a force of nature to be contained by tiny rooms.
Lord God, can this little gal take control of a scene, dominate a movie, project to the last seat, radiate power and personality unto the rafters. For this movie really is far more about Knightley than it is about Austen.
The young actress hit the mainstream in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"; she won over the high-brows with "Bend It Like Beckham" and the lowbrows with "King Arthur" (in the last as a pagan sprite who reminded me of Tinker Bell with a battle-axe). In the recent "Domino," carrying a sawed-off 12-gauge pumper, she took over the NRA crowd. This new one will earn her the loyalty of all the tea-drinkers. She just rules the screen, takes it over with a jut-jaw and eyes beaming with dark fire.
It's a great performance, better than Reese Witherspoon's in "Vanity Fair," because her prideful, prejudiced Lizzy Bennet seems so smart. (Greer Garson, usually called "Miss Greer Garson," then 36, played the part of Miss Bennet opposite Laurence Olivier in the last big-screen version of "P&P," made in 1940 by MGM and said to be dreadful!) I love the way Knightley's eyes light with furious intelligence when she cuts the pompous standoffish Darcy a new something or other: "You could not make me happy and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so."
MacFadyen's Darcy grows on you; at first he seems not merely boorish and tongue-tied but stupid. As Austen's machinations play out and his ultimate goodness becomes evident, the whole performance warms up to the point where he's actually likable. More important, you feel the chemistry between them growing.
Kids, get a room!
Pride and Prejudice (127 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG for mildly adult themes.