There has been a strange phenomenon during this year in quarantine where thousands of people seem to watch the same movie at the same time, even as film releases have been staggered or delayed, effectively destroying the normal discourses that used to arise in the film community. Some new films still follow the standard pattern, as with Wonder Woman 1984 or Da 5 Bloods (as everyone gets access to them at the same time), but others seem to spring from nowhere, somehow prompting a resurgence in popularity for an older work, as was the case last week when I watched Inherent Vice only to log on Letterboxd and see the three most recent logs were from friends who had also watched it. Another instance occurred during the summer when a group chat deciding to watch Paris, Texas together caused a cascade effect that had hundreds more watching within a couple weeks. Pride & Prejudice was one of those films that acted on this sort of collective consciousness, becoming a major cultural force after 15 years on the sidelines, and somehow deciding to do so the very same week I had just happened to pull out the book to read and the DVD to watch.
In a world where dates at bars and restaurants and cinemas are no longer possible but written correspondence and long walks outside are in, it’s no wonder many would turn to the Regency Era. These period pieces always contained some hidden truths, but in a world where we are all facing this level of separation from others, stories set before the technology that brought us closer evoke a similar sense of isolation while also providing a cathartic escape with nice stories about true love. Certainly it’s provided some escape for me as I watched it for the first time last year and kept rewatching until I’d seen it seven times.
For Pride & Prejudice purists looking for the most faithful adaptation of the novel, it may be best to steer clear of this film and stick with the miniseries featuring Colin Firth. Apart from cutting some side stories for the sake of brevity and setting it some twenty years earlier to allow for greater recognition of the changing times England was experiencing at the end of the 18th century, it’s a much looser adaptation with muddier locations, less focus on the formalities, a poorer Bennet family, a bolder but more distant Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), and a new ending. Though Pride & Prejudice takes its liberties with the source material, it’s still a mostly faithful adaptation that does what all adaptations should attempt: modernize its story while staying true to its original spirit.
Though Jane Austen was the forebearer of so many of the most influential works in all the romance genre, this adaptation still manages to make its tropes seem fresh and passionate, without ever diving too far into the cliches that could so easily overtake it. It’s a film that recognizes that love at first sight, or even second or third, is a ridiculous notion. Sometimes passions need to stew through many meetings before they can even begin to emerge. Even then, open declarations of love or anything approaching affection can seem gargantuan undertakings – the agony of the unsaid needing to be spoken through the brief touch of hands or a glance across a room, When the unspoken finally comes to light, it is initially met with rejection, and actual conversation remains trifling or even insulting. The story may take place centuries ago, but it’s hardly foreign to anyone who has been afraid to take the first steps in a relationship or unsure if love would ever come their way. Especially for those who harbor some level of disdain for all the trappings of love and humanity in general. Which all makes it so much sweeter when it arrives at its eventual fairy tale conclusion and the two people who seemed determined to avoid love at all costs realized their fates were to be together. The additional scene in the American ending may be overly schmaltzy, but it drives the point home in the sweetest way. For 200 years, Pride & Prejudice has inspired even the most humdrum people to become raging romantics and Joe Wright’s film has only strengthened that tradition, especially in these recent times when so many of us have needed that extra bit of hope.