Monday, April 11, 2005

Bride and Prejudice

I’m a Jane Austen fan, as evidenced by the quote that headlines this blog (does anyone know which book the quote is from???). I’ve seen virtually every recent film adaptation of her novels, including at least three version of Emma and two versions of Pride and Prejudice. Also not surprising, Elizabeth of the latter novel is my favorite Jane Austen heroine. She is intelligent, direct, and bold, and she finds an ideal match in a man that challenges her (and vice versa).

So of course the latest Pride and Prejudice adaptation by Gurinder Chadha (somewhat cheekily titled Bride and Prejudice) intrigued me. Yet I’ll admit that reviews citing the film’s unevenness partially contributed to the fact that it took me this darn long to see the movie. As I’ve discussed in this blog before, reviews can be destructive in this way—how dare I let a somewhat uncertain approval of the film by various reviewers prohibit me from seeing the film as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen.

Bride and Prejudice certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen. Influenced by and mimicking the extremely popular genre of Indian films called Bollywood, Chadha’s film likely introduces American audiences to Bollywood for the first time. The fact that she tells her story in English indicates that Chadha made this film for initiated American audiences rather than the Indian audiences that have made Bollywood a phenomenon. Point of trivia: India produces more films annually than Hollywood.

Bollywood films contain music, dancing, and true love. Bride and Prejudice is no exception. In one extremely colorful scene, beautiful girls, shopping on the eve of a wedding celebration, laugh as various shopkeepers offers their wares while singing. Laborers dance in the background. An overhead shot depicts the people below, wearing bright and colorful attire, as an almost too perfectly arranged color wheel.

This sense of things being almost too perfectly arranged might seem a contradiction, but I guess I like my films a little messy. The gorgeous Aishwarya Rai, portraying the heroine of the film Lalita, wears striking and heavy makeup, yet I missed some of the naturalness of her Austen counterpart Elizabeth. She and her sometimes enemy/eventual lover Darcy stare at each other longingly, but the naïveté of their gaze and the repetition of these moments that happen ad nauseum relieve the film of some of its tension and impact.

The trick of Pride and Prejudice (Austen’s version) involves balancing various mysteries and misunderstandings, with gradual reveals informing the reader of the real state of things. In her modern re-telling, Chadha gives away too much too early. About three quarters through the movie, Chadha employs a montage sequence to highlight the love growing between Darcy and Lalita. At first I enjoyed watching the two get to know each other better, seeming an improvement on the novel’s inability to present Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy alone due to the etiquette of the time. Yet then I realized that the film had already completed its goal: Darcy and Lalita were in love. So what was left for Chadha to show me?

Sure, she throws in a few misunderstandings to get in the way of Darcy and Lalita, but these hiccups never threaten the couple to the core. The external obstacles are easily resolved, explained, or overlooked. The wedding scene that concludes the film redefines “anticlimactic.” Plus, I must admit that I missed the scene in the novel where Elizabeth tells off Mr. Darcy’s aunt, in essence the only way her pride will allow her to admit her love. Chadha understands Lalita’s ire but she fails to dig deeper to examine Lalita’s own weaknesses and insecurity.

One brief note about the sexual purity of Bollywood films. An American audience might enjoy watching the ways Bride and Prejudice avoids resorting to the bedroom as shorthand for love; after all, two actors with chemistry can set a screen on fire with only a look. Yet because Chadha acknowledges the love relationship between Darcy and Lalita too soon, a sexual union of some sort (even a kiss as the sun sets) might have indicated some sort of progression for the couple. Lalita, played by Ms. Rai, or “the most beautiful woman on earth” as Roger Ebert likes to call her, certainly is stunning. She lights up the screen, and she evinces the necessary strength required to play Elizabeth. But she and Darcy seem more like siblings.

Rai has intense chemistry with another character, however, cad Johnny Wickham (familiar to hopefully all of you from the greatest movie of last year, Spider-Man 2). Even without the kissing and sex of American films, these two are incredibly hot together. This modern highlighting of the chemistry between Johnny and Lalita adds an intriguing layer to Johnny’s deception and Lalita’s culpability in allowing his seduction of herself and her family.

Less successful modern updating involves Johnny’s betrayal of the family. In the novel, he runs off with youngest daughter Lydia. Likewise, in the film, he still runs off with youngest daughter Lucky, yet he clearly has not yet completed his goal of relieving the young girl of her virginity. Lucky remains oblivious to the sexual risk, not noticing Johnny’s lecherous looks and intent. Like with many characters and events in this film, Chadha simplifies Lucky’s character for expediency.

In the novel, Wickham’s crime is shocking and illegal (so many wealthy young women in the 18th century had fallen prey to charming rakes that the government created legislation to allow punishment of the men—and to protect the fortunes of the wealthy). As Austen presents the situation, Lydia’s reputation will be destroyed if Wickham does not marry her. Yet the greater crime of her selfishness is the destruction of her family’s honor and the absolute elimination of her three sisters chances to marry.

The stakes in the film are not as high, by far. Certainly contemporary sexual mores pose difficulties in updating this plot line, yet Chadha misses an opportunity to expose Johnny’s dishonor in other ways. He could attempt to force himself on the young girl, he could be exposed as the pedophile that he is, or he could dishonor Lucky and therefore the family in a more public way (internet porn could play a role). Now I’m simply fantasizing gross ways to make Wickham evil, but Chadha overlooks the sexual and very public shame implicit in Wickham’s affair with Lucky.

Comparing Bride and Prejudice to its antecedent may be unfair: after all, this is a temporal and cultural re-telling. Yet Chadha’s script lacks tightness, thematic cohesion, and a climactic conclusion. Nevertheless, the film certainly delivers fun, entertainment, and a lot of spirit. The characters are exceedingly likeable, and I expect more than a few audience members will get carried away in the naïve depiction of true love (always leading directly to the altar) celebrated here.


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