|PERSUASIONS ON-LINE||V.27, NO.2 (Summer 2007)|
|Pride and Prejudice Reloaded: Navigating the Space of Pemberley|
Dr. Joyce Goggin (email: J.Goggin@uva.nl) is an Associate Professor at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, where she teaches literature, film and new media. Her interests include gambling, gaming and money and their representation in various media. She has written on gambling in the novel, Las Vegas in film, games and narrative, and seventeenth-century painting.
Since British television first produced Pride and Prejudice in 1938, Jane Austen’s best-loved work has regularly served as the raw material for lavish heritage costume dramas and recontextualised contemporary comedies such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). But whether adaptations of Jane Austen’s novel are slavishly faithful or liberally intertextual, Pride and Prejudice is a culturally and emotionally loaded text, so adapting it is always a significant gesture. As Deborah Moggach, screen-writer for the 2005 Focus Features production of Pride and Prejudice has explained, adapting Austen’s story means “mess[ing]” with “the nation’s favorite” novel, “as familiar to many people as their own heartbeat” (Moggach 19). Therefore, what makes that heart beat—love, money or nationalism—is always at stake in bringing the nation’s most popular romance to the screen, making adaptations of Pride and Prejudice excellent indicators of the ideology and Zeitgeist that informed them.1
In “Filming Tourism, Portraying Pemberley,” Linda V. Troost has proposed readings of adaptations of Austen’s novel produced in 1979, 1995, and 2005, precisely as a means of getting at the ideological and aesthetic agendas—the heartbeat—that shaped them. She argues, for example, that the 1979 BBC production reflects the strong Labor government in power when it was made and is, therefore, openly critical of the upper classes. Hence, because screenwriter “Fay Weldon and director Cyril Coke were not interested in romanticizing the British upper class,” viewers are never allowed to “forget that [the class] system requires many menials” (486, 487). In contrast, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series produced by the American A&E network and a “post-Thatcher BBC,” opts for high production values rather than political critique (488). The series was also part of a bid to promote the British tourist industry, which the producers did by romanticizing Darcy and aligning him with Pemberley’s exquisite “natural” grounds, thereby softening the edges around class snobbism. This strategy was highly effective in marketing England as a tourist destination with much culture, history and parkland to offer. Lyme Park, which served as the Pemberley location in the mini-series, promptly began advertising itself as “featured in the BBC production of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice” when the mini-series was released.2
By the time Joe Wright was directing his 2005 adaptation, locations related to Pride and Prejudice were already a significant feature of British tourism, Tony Blair had been Prime Minister for eight years, and the culture of New Labor no longer saw “power, class, and the past” as “major threats to modern politics” (498). This new attitude enabled the National Trust and heritage properties to profitably “populariz[e] aristocratic culture,” so that “high culture [was] no longer the romantic Other” and under attack as it had been throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s (Quest-Ritson, qtd in Troost 498). One might object, however, that although this most recent version of Pride and Prejudice may indulge the aristocracy, it also features rural squalor, muddied hems, and plenty free-range chickens and pigs. If one agrees with Troost, the earthiness of this film is also of a piece with the implicit promotion of British heritage that informs it, equally supported by heritage property owners and the National Trust to make life in aristocratic Britain seem sublime and familiar at the same time. And certainly, with its lavish use of impeccable historic locations and its eye for detail, the film performs all of the functions of the classic heritage film in spite of its grittiness, affording viewers reassuring glimpses into “downstairs” culture viewed through upper-class splendor, so that it ends up celebrating rather than critiquing the past.
In Wright’s adaptation, the New Labor stance on the issue of class privilege is perhaps most evident in the scene directly preceding the Pemberley segment, where Lizzy attempts to argue her way out of a visit to Darcy’s estate. Whereas in the novel we are told that she is “applied to for her approbation” but remains silent, in the film Keira Knightley, who plays Elizabeth, counters with, “But he’s so . . . so . . . rich.” To this, the cinematic Mr. Gardiner replies, “My heavens, Lizzy what a snob you are. Objecting to poor Mr. Darcy because of his wealth. The poor man can’t help it” (my italics). In essence, Mr. Gardiner defends Darcy’s wealth and power as something that, like a physical defect, the “poor” man cannot help. The New-Labor message here is clearly that the aristocracy and high culture should no longer be “othered” but instead pitied as having been handicapped by history and misunderstood, so that both the class and its culture can now be properly appreciated and enjoyed.
As if to reinforce Mr. Gardiner’s defense of Darcy’s wealth, this moment is followed directly by a wide-angle long shot down the road to Pemberley, giving us the full benefit of the estate’s splendor and magnitude. The segment ends in a perfectly framed establishing shot of majestic Pemberley and its sumptuous grounds, “where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste,” providing us with visual support of the aristocracy’s impeccable taste and appreciation of nature (245). The reverse shot of Elizabeth’s reaction to the vista reveals a gaze that is incredulous and desiring at once, accompanied, seconds later, by a burst of laughter, signifying something like, “I can’t believe my (potential) luck!” In other words, by 2003, wealth and class are no longer necessarily bad things and need not be criticized to insure a film’s popularity.
Three Gallery Scenes
As I have shown, analyzing how Pride and Prejudice was imagined at specific junctures in the history of its adaptation permits us to pinpoint agendas that are political, economic, cultural, or any combination thereof, reflected in details of costuming, architecture, landscape and the representation of national identity. Following this same strategy, I now want to narrow the focus of my argument to the portrait scene in the 1940 and 1995 adaptations, which will provide a background against which to present my analysis of the 2005 Focus Features film in some detail.
I have chosen to concentrate on this multilayered scene in the text, as well as in the three adaptations to which I refer, because it draws many of the threads of the narrative together. It is also here that Elizabeth and the viewer/reader are given a moment to contemplate Darcy’s country seat which, when Austen was writing, “was not simply a home: it was [the proprietor’s] principal source of income and the economy of his part of the world” (Troost 479). For Elizabeth, the estate visit is of utmost importance because she knows that playing her cards in such a way as to permit salvaging some of her (reverse) class prejudice could make her the proprietress of the estate. The economic balance of the text, therefore, begins to shift as Elizabeth realizes “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”—a shift that gets underway on the grounds and is made complete in the portrait gallery (250-51). It is, of course, no coincidence that this change of heart takes place in a room that serves as a showcase for portraits certifying Darcy’s aristocratic lineage and for collected art treasures that communicate taste, power and wealth.
This pivotal episode is also carefully constructed to create suspense as our focus (through Elizabeth) is narrowed from the grounds, to the mansion exterior, to the interior, as we are drawn ever closer to the gallery. Hence, the instant in which Elizabeth’s eye finally alights on the much-anticipated portrait is emotionally charged, befitting both the reversal it sets up and the temporary intimacy in which she is finally at liberty to take the measure of the inner man. More important, because the portrait scene thematizes the act of looking (the reader/viewer looking at Elizabeth, who herself is looking at a portrait), it functions as an allegory of the power and politics of looking. In the gallery scene, the intimidating figure of Darcy is reduced to a still and anodyne, two-dimensional likeness so that the hierarchy of who is free to gaze at whom is interrupted, providing Elizabeth with the leisure to contemplate a man, who has it “in his power to bestow” so “much of pleasure or pain” (250-51). The significance of her look can be read in how quickly Austen returns the gaze to Darcy, by situating Elizabeth in front of “the canvas, on which he was represented, and fix[ing] his eyes upon herself” (251). This rapid shifting of the privilege of unabashed gazing implies that its attribution to Elizabeth is inappropriate, and it has the advantage of softening the unpleasant “impropriety” of a gaze that she is habitually obliged to suffer.
This loaded and decisive episode in the text constitutes a serious challenge for filmmakers since there are few effective methods for transferring thought rendered novelistically in free indirect discourse to film, outside of the now hackneyed voice-over. In adapting Pride and Prejudice, therefore, directors have had to find ways to signal the shift of the gaze from Elizabeth to Darcy while communicating the power balance that it signifies. As I hope to show, the visual aesthetics of how this content is communicated in the 1940, 1995, and 2005 adaptations have a great deal to tell us about whom these films are addressing. With this in mind then, I would like briefly to discuss how the 1940 Hollywood and the 1995 BBC/A&E productions have dealt with the gallery scene before analyzing how this same scene in the 2005 Focus Features adaptation articulates certain aspects of the contemporary cultural agenda.
In the 1940 MGM adaptation, the gallery scene is paradoxically and glaringly present in its absence. The entirely Pemberley scene, including the gallery, has been cut, and this omission effectively leaves Elizabeth’s reasons for changing her opinion of Darcy rather vague, since the obvious financial incentive of Pemberley and the opportunity to contemplate the portrait are dropped. As a means of compensating for the lack of motivation behind Elizabeth’s dramatic change of heart, Laurence Olivier’s Darcy is consistently chivalrous and complimentary throughout the film, and the lovers’ relationship is rather ambivalent and flirtatious from the outset. As a result, Elizabeth’s hostility seems more coquettish than rational, as though it were a sort of affectation rather than real, if misguided, anger. But while the scene leaves a gap at the level of character motivation, its omission is all the more striking as a missed occasion to treat viewers, just recovering from a major economic depression, to a lavish scene of old-world opulence. Indeed, even if moving the production to a heritage location was not an option, studios typically built sets to represent European settings such as the gallery at Pemberley, with the added benefit of flatteringly and pleasurably aligning the viewer with historical connoisseurs of high-culture tastes in fine art.3
Cutting this scene might seem an odd choice, given the opportunity it affords for visual opulence and the emotional grounding for characters’ actions. As I suggested previously, however, this node in the text also constitutes a disruption of the politics of looking. By treating looking as a politicized action I am, of course referring to Laura Mulvey’s watershed essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), in which she forwarded the concept of the cinematic male gaze, that is, the gaze of patriarchal privilege that is free to observe pleasurably and at will. In this essay, Mulvey is specifically discussing classical Hollywood cinema of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, which presented a visual world structured and controlled by the male gaze, and provided viewers with a “satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (10). As she further explains, the object of, or the complement to, the male gaze is the female, who is painstakingly constructed to be looked at:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (10)
Quite obviously, Greer Garson’s Elizabeth was lighting up the screen when “the magic of the [classical] Hollywood style [was] at its best” (8) and was styled to modestly invite close scrutiny, rather than to aggressively return the gaze.
Mulvey’s theory, moreover, is eminently applicable to the western cultural tradition at large as it expresses itself in representational modes of art like painting, sculpture and novelistic discourse, wherein the female form is arranged so as to enhance visibility, while projecting reassuring and validating availability.4 In patriarchal culture, as in Pride and Prejudice, the power to enjoy sources of visual pleasure such as the female body with impunity and without restriction, is the exclusive domain of the empowered male subject of means, and not the prerogative of a female subject. Hence, directing her protagonist’s gaze at Darcy’s portrait without inhibition or restriction was a significant gesture when Austen was writing, a fact which explains her quick move to normalize this moment’s strangeness by relocating the gaze, rather awkwardly and uncannily, in Darcy’s portrait.5
From this perspective, Robert Z. Leonard’s decision to cut the scene was an oddly appropriate way to faithfully reproduce Austen’s treatment of the politics of looking given that, without a voice-over, it would have been impossible to communicate Elizabeth’s impression that the portrait is actually staring at her. In keeping with the politics of looking then, scenes in which women returned the gaze were rare in 1940, and accordingly Garson has been directed to address her interlocutors from an oblique and coquettish angle or to cast her eyes modestly downwards.
In other words, within the historic context of both novel and film, a scene in which a female subject directs her gaze at the figure of man constituted as an object of desire would have clearly violated the dominant aesthetic and might well have presented itself to a Hollywood filmmaker as convenient scene to cut. Hence, where the novel was able discursively to diffuse Elizabeth’s rather forward act of looking, the film simply drops the scene, avoiding any abrupt reversal or interruption of the pleasurable alignment of spectators with the male gaze that the film had established to that point.6
By 1995, however, things had changed—at least some things. Mulvey’s article had spawned a whole school of feminist film criticism, and students throughout the humanities had read about visual pleasure and the gaze in one context or another. The 1990s also saw a new kind of heritage cinema that obsessed over getting historical details correct in a bid to claim authenticity, while freely giving the ideology of the textual antecedent a facelift where needed to appeal to contemporary audiences. Typical of this era in heritage film was Sense and Sensibility (1995), for which Emma Thompson wrote a screenplay that has come to be synonymous with the concept of “feminist revisionism.” What such feminist revisionist heritage films seek to do, at least in my opinion, is to have it both ways. By stressing features of adapted texts that might be construed as portraying emancipated female behavior, while playing down other historical aspects of the text which contemporary filmgoers might find distastefully sexist, these films somehow convince us that women were already feminists in Jane Austen’s day, in spite of constricting corsets and the economic imperative to advertise oneself on the marriage market.
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series has it both ways by sporadically transgressing the order of the gaze in order to hold out visual pleasure to (feminist) female spectators. This viewer-pleasing strategy is perhaps most dramatically, and certainly most memorably, demonstrated in the scene where Colin Firth, as Darcy, gallops to a pond on the Pemberley grounds, strips to his shirt, and plunges in. While this gesture minimizes the harshness of the class system by aligning Colin Firth with nature rather than with stuffy aristocratic sensibilities, he is also given a revisionist reading which renders him both sensitive and emotionally vulnerable. However, given that this scene prompted fans to refer to the actor as Colin “Wet-Shirt” Firth, I think it is also safe to say that the film gives female viewers the power to turn a male subject into an eroticized object, thereby reversing the hierarchy of the gaze, however fleetingly. Seen in this light, the Pemberley gallery scene, which features a three-quarter-length portrait of a smiling Darcy in a Gainsborough-like landscape, as well as a miniature of his face placed in a glass case so that Elizabeth has to look down at it, doubles her viewing pleasure (and the spectator’s) while positioning her, at least metaphorically, on top.
In the Focus Features adaptation, the Pemberley gallery scene is given a good deal of attention and screen time, and it boasts production-values that set it apart from the aesthetic tone of the rest of the film in terms of pace, shot frequency and duration, and lighting. Moreover, Wright’s decision to shoot the scene in a sculpture gallery at the Chatsworth estate and to have Matthew Macfadyen rendered as a three-dimensional bust rather than on a flat canvas also gives this scene a heightened and memorable visual intensity. According to Moggach, the makers “just saw the sculptures and realized [they were] much better than pictures. . . . [T]hey’re also so erotic, all those breasts and buttocks that she trails her finger along.”7 Likewise, Troost concludes that “the 2005 film uses the visit to Pemberley to make Elizabeth confront her own sexuality” (493), and Wright claims in the DVD commentary that this scene “is about sex. This place is about bodies.” I would add, however, that the change in medium from portrait to bust is closely related to an aesthetic trend that is currently very prevalent in film, namely the sporadic incorporation of the look and feel of interactive media into otherwise cinematic productions.
Although many would automatically identify interactive media with futuristic adventure films as opposed to historical costume drama, the impact of interactive narrative in the form of video games is remarkably pervasive in mainstream contemporary film across genres. The simple fact that computer games have begun to gross significantly more than the film industry has lead studios to respond by releasing video games that promote almost all major films, either before, after or upon a film’s release. Arguably, heritage film is one of the few movie genres that rarely lends itself to being released in video game form; however, my argument in this regard is, somewhat broader, modeled on what Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland have referred to as “video game logic” (162-63). According to Elsaesser and Buckland, the logic of video games expresses itself in dramatic structures that involve discernable rules and challenges that must be systematically overcome before the protagonist can advance to another level. While obvious examples include crime and adventure films and films adapted directly from video games, movies from a rapidly expanding variety of genres, including romance, “at certain moments switch to [the logic] of ‘digital narrative,’ as found in video games” (Elsaesser and Buckland 147). The influence of this logic may in part account for Wright’s statement in the DVD commentary that the mise en scène at one point in Pride & Prejudice looks like “something out of an adventure film, which this is in a way.”
Just as films of many genres now borrow, at least occasionally, the structural logic of video games, there is a broader tendency in contemporary mainstream film to borrow the look and “feel” of interactive media for segments of varying duration. Such moments are indicative of what I would call the video game aesthetic, frequently mobilized to communicate an intensified state of mind or sensory perception and to invite viewer involvement, or what Wright has called “immediacy” (DVD commentary). The concept of immediacy is borrowed from the jargon of game designers, whose goal is to provide players with a sense of fully fleshed-out presence in the game world. Since, however, interaction is not an option for film viewers, filmmakers attempt to reproduce visual aspects of the experience of digital worlds, thereby hoping to trigger a sensation of heightened involvement in the viewer. And since video game design has left Pac Man far behind and is now capable of producing rich, lush detail, the look and feel of interactive games are readily adaptable to any historical period and can produce tremendous visual and kinesthetic effects.8 In other words, video game aesthetics have greatly extended directors’ range and palette at a time when cinema has to work hard to keep up in a highly competitive market replete with enthralling interactive entertainment.
The appearance of the aesthetic code of video games in contemporary cinema, and the heightened involvement it induces in some spectators, may be likened to the intercalation of extended epistolary exchanges in texts otherwise composed of prose. However subtle and fleeting the appearance of this code may be in films, it has the advantage of being instinctively legible to a large segment of relatively young viewers, signaling immediacy while reinforcing identification with a particular screen persona. This code makes at least two brief appearances in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and specifically addresses relatively young female viewers. Indeed Wright, who was thirty-one when he directed the adaptation and was worried about being too “cool,” “street” and “edgy” for the project, referred to the finished product as “a teen movie” in the tradition of “Grease and The Breakfast Club,” repeatedly mentioning that Keira Knightley was just nineteen when she played Elizabeth Bennet and that the film is “about very young people falling in love.”9 Throughout the following section, I will also be concerned with the status of the gaze in contemporary cinema and how, in the two scenes I will discuss in greater detail, the gaze is directly and powerfully connected with the aesthetics of interactive media that makes brief but significant appearances.
Looking and Touching
One of the hallmarks of this film is Wright’s insistent use of close-ups, a technique which the director claims he chose to mimic “the narrative beats of the story, . . . the atmosphere and tone of the book” (Abeel). A large number of these close-ups focus intensely on Keira Knightley’s large, luminous eyes, which she directs uninhibitedly and unswervingly at anyone in her path. As I have just explained, Wright knowingly addressed a young female audience in making this film, and I would argue therefore that it is significant that Knightley is frequently presented in the act of gazing. The constant presence of these shots reflects the twenty-first-century target group’s at least partial awareness of the power of the gaze, as well as the current highly sexual and aggressive version of feminism emblemized by girl groups like the Pussycat Dolls. Unlike revisionist films of the 1990s that gave women the privilege of knowing what it might be like to stare at attractive objects with impunity for a brief moment, this Elizabeth’s gaze is constant and frankly intrusive, signifying that she is free to penetrate and observe any space presented in the film.
In order to explain how Wright has updated Elizabeth Bennet better to represent contemporary culture, I would like to turn to the scene in which Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter revealing Wickham’s true nature and giving his assurance that no more proposals are forthcoming. Here, by means of a continuous, over-the-shoulder tracking shot, we view a restless Lizzy in her nightdress as she meanders down a long corridor. In his recent book on the influence of video games on all kinds of contemporary artistic production, Alexander Galloway argues that the framing and filming of scenes like this one exemplifies “the preponderance of continuous-shot film-making,” which all genres of recent film have borrowed from interactive media (65). Continuous shots that remain stationary or maintain a single point of view from one point to the next technically and aesthetically mimic the avatar point of view. This technique is a visual code familiar to gamers as well as a growing group of people who use other kinds interactive media such as virtual tours, not to mention those who watch TV and film, both of which increasingly incorporate this code. According to Galloway, continuous shots are “essentially a sublimation of the absence of montage in digital poetics” and now appear in movies where montage editing, such as shot-reverse-shots and cross-cuts, would have been used in the past as a means of conveying emotion. In other words, new directors like Wright are currently shooting films that incorporate the point of view common to video games known as third and first person shooters—a tactic that serves as a means of intensifying identification. This is, of course, not to suggest that viewers can somehow interact and move Keira Knightley around like they would a game avatar, nor that the scene’s aesthetic framing necessarily signifies violence, but rather that the point of view created by a continuous tracking shot is borrowed from interactive media.10
Avatars in video games have the added advantage of appealing to the spectator as “an extension” of their own bodies, stimulating “continuous identification” (Rehak 103). Interestingly enough, Wright wants the viewer to enter into just such a relationship with his protagonist and has explained that “the whole idea of the film is to make it as subjective as possible so you are constantly seeing the world through [Elizabeth’s] eyes.” In other words, it is no coincidence that at this highly charged emotional moment, in a film that Wright hopes to make us see though Knightley’s eyes, he switches to the over-the-shoulder tracking shot, triggering just that kind of personal involvement on the part of the spectator.
Following this shot, Elizabeth enters her bedroom and gazes at her own image in the “mirror” for what seems an interminable duration. Since Knightley is actually staring directly into the camera lens rather than a mirror, the visual code asks us to see through her as she makes her way down the hall and then to view her through an implied mirror, an effect suggesting that the viewer and Knightley are one, or at least asking the viewer to narcissistically identify with Knightley.
The second instance of this aesthetic begins as the camera locates the Gardiners’ carriage through an aerial shot as they drive up to Pemberley and slowly shifts to a wide-angle long shot. This move is repeated as we find Elizabeth in the hall of the estate, though an interior aerial shot that directly parallels the shot just taken outside. These two shots create an illusion of freedom of movement as well as a brief sensation of vertigo, both of which are essential to the kinesthetic computer game experience to which I think this film refers, albeit subtly and intermittently.11 More important, Elizabeth is filmed looking up, thereby enhancing our sense of vertiginous depth, while the flooring beneath her creates an even more intense illusion of receding depth. As Norman Bryson pointed out in Looking at the Overlooked, this kind of flooring originated in ancient Rome, and its goal was to produce “perceptual uncertainty concerning the depth of field, . . . creat[ing] a dynamic field that expands and scintillates with energy” (33). Although it is surely a happy coincidence that the entry hall in Chatsworth is tiled in such a way, the director took full advantage of it, in order to create the illusion of deep, projected space—an illusion that is absolutely essential and fundamental to the computer game experience.
The next shot, with equal fortuitousness, seems to capture the spatial aesthetics of the Renaissance, so distant from and yet so vital to new media. In other words, a point-of-view shot shows us what Elizabeth is looking at, namely the frescos on the ceiling, which rely for their illusion of depth on the fifteenth-century innovation of the vanishing point. The depth of this shot is further enhanced by the archway framing the gallery into which Elizabeth is about to enter, reminding us of the Renaissance notion that representation was meant to provide a window to the world that would seduce the viewer into believing the illusion of depth (see Bolter and Grusin 21-31).
Interactive media such as video games quite literally provide viewers with the kinesthetic illusion that they have entered a projected space and may explore and participate in this technologically mediated space. Hence, whereas the visual illusion that film affords viewers relies on the 180-degree rule, video games hold out the illusion of having the freedom to move one’s avatar a full 360 degrees at any given time. This illusion allows gamers to act as directors and cameramen of their own films, circling three-dimensional objects, opening doors, and looking into cupboards and closets. In other words, although this perception is of course an illusion, computer games give the player the feeling that they are at liberty to penetrate any corner of the gamescape, and this illusion is precisely the feeling that Wright claims to have wanted to give the spectator in this scene. As he explains, “I wanted the audience to feel like they were living at this time, and involved deeply. I wanted a 360-degree world, where you could look around any corner. . . . You’re then able to go in and out of doors and in and out of windows and really see and feel the environment for a full 360-degrees rather than something very static and stage-bound.”12
As in the Hunsford scene, we enter the gallery behind Keira Knightley, which gives viewers a visual clue to see the scene from her point of view, as though she were our avatar. Once in the gallery, the camera pans and circles around various sculptures, pulling in for a closer and very penetrating view, treating the voyeur in all of us to what we might choose to zoom in on if we were controlling the visual apparatus. Hence, by manipulating the depth of the shots of which the scene is composed as the camera leads us through the gallery, Wright has given us “more immediacy” and the illusion that we are free to navigate the scene, choosing where to go next, circling a full 360 degrees, as if by our own volition.
Importantly, only Knightley’s hand and part of her skirt are visible at two points in this series of continuous shots that follow her entry while the rest of her body has been excluded from the frame. This way of positioning the seeing subject in the frame is known as a subjective point-of-view shot, and it is the standard and constant perspective of all first-person shooter games. Significantly, however, until the first-person shooter taught us to read this kind of shot as the embodiment of ourselves on a virtual landscape, the subjective point of view was used exclusively to “show the optical perspective of a drugged, drowsy, drunk, or otherwise intoxicated character,” to provide “a sense of detachment,” or to convey “the vision of aliens, criminals, monsters, or characters deemed other wise inhuman by the film’s narrative” (Galloway 46, 48, 50). First-person shooters have, however, made this aesthetic code so familiar that subjective shots are now used to signal all of the above as well as active embodiment, to heighten the effects of cinematic suture, and to lend the spectator the sensation of a lean-forward medium such as the video game. This sense of hands-on tactility, or what game scholars refer to as the haptic effect of games, is visually suggested in the following scene, where more than 20 seconds of screen time are devoted to a close-up of Knightley’s hand as she fondles two small statues and what might presumably be a letter that Darcy is writing. By having Knightley drag her hand over the statuary, the director invites us to enter into the sensuality and eroticism of the scene in a way that contemporary audiences, accustomed to hands-on experience, can understand and identify with.
While the style of the gallery scene triggers spectators’ sense of tactility, it also obsessively foregrounds Keira Knightley as the looker, the owner of the gaze. In shot after shot, we see her staring at various eroticized statues until she comes to Darcy’s bust, at which she lasciviously stares with lips parted for more than 45 seconds of screen time.
The gaze here has been decidedly transferred to Elizabeth and, given that the statue faces away from the viewer, there is no question whatsoever that any of the discomfort that Austen wrote into this scene in the novel might be glimpsed through Knightley’s looking. And just in case the implications might be lost on the viewer, the bridge to the next scene is through Knightley’s gaze, which penetrates the private space of a room where Darcy’s sister plays the piano. Until she is caught in the act of this highly intrusive gesture, we are again presented with several sustained shots of Knightley’s covert, voyeuristic and controlling gaze that organizes the scene.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been mobilized in the service of political, ideological and economic agendas at various junctures over the history of its screening. The novel has been adapted as a critique of the upper classes and a validation of labor; as a means of stimulating the British tourist industry; and as a vehicle for the promotion of national heritage. More specifically, the Pemberley scene is the nexus of sexual and visual politics. Classical Hollywood cinema chose to eliminate the scene to avoid the risk of presenting a heroine whom audiences in 1940 might have found unpalatably empowered. The revisionist 1995 A&E/BBC mini-series on the other hand, doubles the objectification of Darcy by showing two portraits amenable to Elizabeth’s gaze, artfully treating feminist viewers to pleasurable moments where the conventional power structure of the gaze is inverted.
The 2005 Focus Features film of course was made to appeal to its contemporary audience, but how the film does this is somewhat more complex. First, that statues are somehow “better than pictures,” in Moggach’s words, is related to the current state of digital culture whereby we have become accustomed to hands-on, three-dimensional, interactive environments and narratives that pleasure more senses than sight and hearing alone. Hence, rather than passively viewing the illusion of a three-dimensional object of desire projected onto a flat canvas, it now seems somehow appropriate that Knightley’s Elizabeth circles the statues while actively looking and touching. By heightening the level and kinds of tactility represented in the segment, this particular filming of the novel’s gallery scene communicates the emotion of the moment in a way that contemporary viewers can easily grasp and identify with. This scene shares those features of computer games that could viably be reproduced in film and provides spectators with the illusion of freedom of movement along with the illusory option to actively choose points of focus.
Moreover, part of the audience to which the film seeks to appeal is also the audience segment most likely to identify with Keira Knightley. This group is composed of young, new-wave feminists, who might not see themselves as feminists at all, and who do not remember having to feel satisfied with being granted the power of the gaze for a fraction of the total screen time. Indeed, this viewer segment might well feel it owns the gaze, however temporary or superficial that ownership turns out to be and, in fact, Keira Knightley possesses it through most of the film. In other words, many aspects of Wright’s adaptation are far from innocent, catering to an audience comprised of many new-wave feminists, who know, however implicitly, about the gaze and are familiar with interactive media.
Henry James once criticized “publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of the pleasant twaddle of magazines” for having bent Austen to “their material purpose, so amenable to pretty reproduction in every variety,” and provoking “mechanical and overdone reactions” on the part of readers and spectators (qtd in Lock 84). Since James wrote those lines, Austen has continued to serve producers and directors who hope to provoke emotional responses from audiences, whatever their “material purpose” may be. It seems unlikely then, that adaptations of Pride and Prejudice will cease to be made, whether as spoofs or as “serious” costume melodramas that advertise national heritage, or as bids to mobilize whatever ideology is contemporary with their moment of production. This said, however, I also think it is safe to assume that audiences will go on taking great pleasure in the spectacle of Austen’s narrative transposed into any number of visual media, feeling they have somehow been brought closer to that greatest of English romance writers to whom James referred as “everybody’s dear.”
Abeel, Erica. “Tackling a Classic: Joe Wright on Pride &
Prejudice.” indieWIRE. 10 Nov. 2005. 3 May
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