I was channel surfing last night, and on Turner Classic Movies I came upon the 1940 version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, with Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennett and Edna May Oliver as the egregious Lady Catherine de Burgh. I have recently become especially enamored of the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett. with Donald Sutherland as her father and Judi Dench as Lady Catherine. But Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier are among the greatest screen actors ever, so I watched a good deal of the film to compare. To my surprise, I found myself vastly preferring the Keira Knightley version.
Now, part of this is attributable to the fact that Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench are two of my favorite character actors, and each does a rather small part proud. And of course Knightley is luminous on screen, with an intensity that speaks depths of banked erotic emotion that Garson cannot match. But after a while, I realized that my preference really derived from a quite different source.
The 1940's film [on which none other than Aldous Huxley worked as a writer!] is a classic Hollywood period piece. All of the Bennett girls are beautifully turned out in hoop skirts and such, and their home is an elegant estate right off an MGM back lot. But just for this reason, the visual effect of the movie is to completely obscure the enormous class gulf between the Bennetts, who inhabit the lower reaches of the English squierearchy, and Mr. Darcy, who is the master of one of the great Stately Homes of England. This in turn makes his attitude toward the Bennetts incomprehensible, thereby completely undermining the fact that Austen, of all authors imagineable, would have been keenly attuned to every nuance of social distinction and class prejudice.
In the 2005 film, the Bennett household is represented in a way that communicates everything Austen would have relied on her audience to understand. The servants are not liveried, there is only one rather modest horse and carriage, pigs wander in and out of the house, farm workers are constantly in evidence, and there are no beautifully maintained English gardens in the background of the outdoor camera shots. Darcy's estate, by contrast, has vast acres of lawns, fountains, and formal gardens, and the interior even sports a huge sculpture gallery filled with Roman nudes in glistening marble and a carved stone likeness of Darcy himself. The sets and cinematography of the film capture brilliantly Austen's complex understanding of the social structure of early nineteenth century upper class England.
Still Laurence Olivier is Laurence Olivier, and any young Elizabeth Bennett would clearly be lucky to bag him.