Howard Jacobson: Look through a glass darkly to understand how Jane Austen can work on screen

No one in Regency England could possibly have owned choppers as perfect as Keira Knightley's

Monday 08 July 2013 03:16
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What's this all about? Who reads in a pub? Why would you acquaint yourself with a novel you don't know by starting with the screenplay? How have you got through life without reading Pride and Prejudice anyway? And why tell us? Is it the mark of a man's bona fides today that he must be seen to be unlettered? How plain, suddenly, we are all at pains to be. How like the chap next door. It is as though another 18th century has come again, so eager are we not to be taken for connoisseurs or virtuosi. Except of course that we wouldn't want it to be supposed that we know too much about the 18th century - until, that is, we come to shoot the movie.

The new man - not too immersed in books, not too removed from the pursuits of the populace (pint of lager my foot!), but with eyes that spring tears like the fountains in Mr Darcy's gardens. Is the implication that the less we know the fresher will be our insights? That ignorance makes our dewy tears more piercing? The new, untutored man of feeling. Only imagine what Jane Austen would have said of such a person.

What tells me all these protestations of plainness are hooey is how literate, how saturated in the language of Jane Austen's thought, both films turned out to be. That this, in the case of Pride and Prejudice, is partly down to the novelist Deborah Moggach who wrote the excellent screenplay (the one Joe Wright blubbered into his lager over), I don't doubt. Deborah Moggach's reading of Jane Austen, you feel, was not done down the pub. Her love of Jane Austen's asperity, to go no further than that, is evident from the amount of it that makes it on to the screen. It's not all there. How could it be? If the harshness of Jane Austen's intelligence were properly apprehended by those who read her, she would enjoy far less popularity as a novelist than she does, let alone as a provider of material for movies which, when all is said and done, are a more verdant medium. But when the script finds a greater magnanimity than Jane Austen is always able to - as in the treatment of Mrs Bennet, for example - I'm not sure one should complain. There are moments in Pride and Prejudice the novel when you can see why Jane Austen had to go on and write the more comprehending, more forgiving Emma and Persuasion. Impatient for Jane Austen to mature, Deborah Moggach - rather touchingly, to my sense - does it for her.

Joe Wright rarely puts a foot wrong either, unless allowing Keira Knightley to do whatever that thing she does with her mouth is his responsibility. I have to say I do not belong to that troop of middle-aged men who are reminded by Keira Knightley of feelings they thought they had forgotten. She has too many teeth for my liking. Too many teeth for the film, come to that, since domestic and economic authenticity is its trademark (hence those pig's balls in the living-room), and no one in Regency England could possibly have owned choppers as perfect or as multitudinous as hers.

But it isn't only the teeth that bother me. It's Keira Knightley's way of bringing her fingers to her lips, whinnying houyhnhnmishly, and making you feel you are observing something that you shouldn't. Princess Diana perfected the same routine, somewhere between brazenness and shyness, and always, I thought, to lewd effect. As Darcy says to Mr Bingley, "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to a young lady who wears her vagina on her face." Or words to that effect. The which being the case, I found it scarcely credible that the same Mr Darcy - who at least, in this production, does not wear his virility on his backside - should fall for Keira Knightley.

Thereafter, I have no complaint. Joe Wright made one understand why a mother with five daughters might behave with a desperation which the more refined of those daughters would find distasteful, and why the comings and goings of a single man in possession of good fortune would be watched with such anguished attentiveness. When Bingley closed his house and returned to town, we felt the shutters come down on all our hopes. But beyond this rendering of the cruel social exigencies of the period, Joe Wright performed a feat I found quite sublime, and which made me wonder whether there might be something in the air of the pub he frequents which is after all conducive to understanding fiction.

What he did was breathe grandeur into Elizabeth Bennet's story - Keira Knightley's oral indecencies apart - evoking all the great filmic erotic melodramas one could think of - Wuthering Heights, Far From the Madding Crowd, Rebecca, and even at one point, I thought, A Passage to India via Middlemarch (virgin English ladies confronted with the carnalities of art) - in order to refute the usual absurd charges of miniaturism made against Jane Austen, and to remind us that there is no bigger story or grander theme, nothing that bears more seriously upon our humanness, than the perturbations of a single heart.

And if takes a pint of lager to teach you that, then all right, make that two pints.

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