Pride and Prejudice (1940)

2016 #122
Robert Z. Leonard | 113 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pride and PrejudiceThe first adaptation of Jane Austen’s ever-popular novel, MGM’s film is a compromised endeavour: by executives softening dialogue and rewriting characters; by changing its setting to permit grander costumes; by Gone with the Wind using all the Technicolor stock, forcing the lavish production to shoot in black-and-white.

Nonetheless, it emerges a solid take on Austen (until the ending goes thoroughly astray). Laurence Olivier is a suitably moody Darcy and, though far too old for the part, Greer Garson makes a witty Lizzy.

Massively overshadowed by later adaptations, this remains an entertaining version for anyone not too concerned about textual faithfulness.

4 out of 5

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

2010 #106
Vincente Minnelli | 108 mins | TV | U

Someone (who exactly is long lost to the depths of my memory) once observed that, though a lot of people claim to not like musicals, they’re quite happy to acknowledge their love for The Sound of Music, or Grease, or Disney films, or (these days) Mamma Mia, apparently unaware that all those bits where people start singing make those films musicals. I expect such a person’s defence would run along the lines of affirming they like those musicals, but don’t like musicals on the whole. Despite its occasional fair placing on lists of great musicals — or even great films, sometimes — I think Meet Me in St. Louis would fall into that second group.

The film is based on Sally Benson’s autobiographical stories, collected as 5135 Kensington, though at times it reminded me of Pride & Prejudice — a family of daughters seeking marriage — albeit a version of Pride & Prejudice with much of the dramatic tension removed. For instance, Austen’s tale spends a long time creating a bad impression of Mr Darcy, only to eventually reveal his (mostly) good intentions. St. Louis, on the other hand, manages all of five minutes (if that) in which John Truett (the Darcy-ish character) is suspected of having done something dastardly before the truth is revealed.

Garland and O'BrienJudy Garland is fine in the lead role — still playing a teen, despite being 21, but suitably distant from Dorothy. Margaret O’Brien receives prominent second billing in the role of ‘Tootie’, despite being just seven years old. She was, I learn, something of a star at the time, in spite of her young age, which perhaps explains the (arguably) undue prominence in both the credits and the film itself. That said, she’s a rather good actress, and picked up an Oscar for her performance here (and other roles she played in 1944).

Most of the time Meet Me in St. Louis ambles along agreeably enough, throwing in a few nice songs — including well-known numbers like The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — before (spoilers!) everything turns out alright in the end. It’s all perfectly pleasant, but I’m not sure I could offer it any higher praise than that.

3 out of 5

Meet Me in St. Louis is on Film4 today, Wednesday 17th December 2014, at 4:10pm.

Bride & Prejudice (2004)

2010 #82
Gurinder Chadha | 107 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

I don’t imagine Bride & Prejudice is going to convert many people who aren’t already predisposed to liking it in some way. That’s not to say it’s not good or doesn’t have potential crossover appeal, but it still has a whole list of things that will put certain viewers off.

Melodramatic love story/stories? Check. A couple of over-acted comedy characters? Check. Characters bursting into song? Check. Bright, colourful, extravagant song-and-dance numbers? Check.

I can’t comment on how much it’s like a Bollywood movie because I’ve never seen one, but it’s a little bit what I’d expect one to be like; albeit a Westernised one, as it’s mostly in English, with some significant British and American characters, and runs comfortably under two hours. Another point of reference that came to mind was Moulin Rouge, though it’s not as MTV-style fast-paced as that, and the songs are originals rather than repurposed pop/rock numbers. Also Mamma Mia, though I don’t wish to bring about the negative connotations — it’s well sung and not as cheesy.

The other main facet is that which is (hopefully) obvious from the title: it’s a Jane Austen adaptation. It’s easy to think we’re in no rush for another version of Pride and Prejudice, what with the iconic 1995 BBC series and the Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley film, not to mention the numerous adaptations predating either of those, but Bride brings plenty that’s vastly different to the table. It converts the novel very accurately (as best I can tell, having only seen screen versions), retaining both the characterisation and the majority of the plot in a similar sequence of events.

On the surface it’s completely different, of course, transplanting everything from 19th Century England to modern-day India, complete with vibrant song & dance numbers, email correspondence and aeroplane-fuelled globetrotting. There’s no danger anyone will confuse this for a straight adaptation. But for all that it is a faithful retelling, the characters and their actions unmistakably Austen’s.

That said, while most characters are fundamentally unchanged, others are suitably modified. Nitin Ganatra offers a very different Mr Collins (here, Mr Kohli), for instance. Removing the awkward creepiness of the usual interpretation, he’s instead Americanised — brash, mannerless, over-enthusiastic — but still odd, unlikeable, and undesirable.

Little of the plot requires such modification, perhaps thanks to the culture it’s been grafted onto — the predominance of arranged marriages wouldn’t really work in a ’00s British setting — and those bits which are changed are relatively minor. Lydia (here, Lakhi) runs off with Wickham for an afternoon at the London Eye, rather than eloping; Georgiana (here, the slightly more modern Georgina) was impregnated at 16, less legally complicated than the novel’s 15.

As I said, Bride & Prejudice certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those that can accept its musical, colourful, comical style and familiar plot (the curse of any version of a much-adapted tale), it’s a wonderful entertainment.

4 out of 5

Becoming Jane (2007)

2008 #91
Julian Jarrold | 115 mins | DVD | PG / PG

Becoming JaneDirector Julian Jarrold seems to have found his cinematic niche in “coming a bit late”. His Kinky Boots, while entertaining, was reminiscent of films like The Full Monty… except 8 years later; Becoming Jane rides the Pride & Prejudice bandwagon… except 18 months later; and his latest, the new Brideshead Revisited, had something of the Atonements about it… except 6 months later. At least his lead times have got shorter.

Perhaps Jarrold’s other inspiration here was Batman Begins. No, bear with me, for this is Austen Begins: Jane’s literary career has yet to start, but as the film progresses we see something of her personality taking shape — and plenty of the inspiration for her novels. Lord alone knows how factual any of it is, but I’m sure it must be a lot of fun for certain Austenites. On the other hand, purists might be less pleased with their idol being constantly lovelorn and indulging in (whisper it, children) snogging. For those with only the most cursory knowledge of Austen’s work, these might be the only things that stop them believing this is an adaptation of one of her novels; though, in truth, they’re probably not even that intrusive.

The big advantage to this being a somewhat Hollywoodised version of the story is the slew of English acting talent on display. Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Ian Richardson are all present, in roles of varying sizes, plus the younger Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Laurence Fox (son of Edward); not to mention James McAvoy, busy appearing in everything under the sun at the time. In the lead role, Anne Hathaway does a fine job, though there’s the inevitable question of “why not cast a Brit?” (to which one must assume the answer is, “for the sake of the US box office”). At least her accent is good.

Becoming Jane is a Jane Austen biopic treated as if it were a Jane Austen novel. In fact, so much is it embedded in the writing of Pride & Prejudice — and the notion that most of that was inspired by her own life — that it occasionally feels like another adaptation of it. This approach is a little uncomfortable in places, though probably makes sense considering the target market; and, by being so relatively lightweight, the resultant films seems to have faced less criticism from some Austenites than the similarly-timed TV biopic, Miss Austen Regrets. It’s for precisely this reason that the latter was a superior product, however: it may be darker and less uplifting — it ends with Austen’s death, rather than the start of her literary career — but it has a level of reflection that makes it more than Austen-Lite. Unlike this.

3 out of 5

Becoming Jane is on BBC Two today, Wednesday 31st December 2014, at 1:20pm.

(Originally posted on 27th January 2009.)