It's a good film, even if I have problems with it as an Austen adaptation. Despite appearances it came from Hollywood and the main reason for watching it these days would of course be Laurence Olivier. This was the same year he did Hitchcock's Rebecca
I'll start with the problems, although I should emphasise that I'm coming from the standpoint of a Jane Austen fan. This is a charming film. It's thoroughly competent and always watchable, even if slightly watered down from the original. I'm sure someone who hadn't read the book would be wondering why I was making a fuss at all. Firstly, the actors.
Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn are very likeable and work well in the film, but they're a terrible Mr and Mrs Bennet. Boland's playing the grande dame, with barely a hint of Mrs Bennet's silliness and vanity. Meanwhile Gwenn isn't making enough of the flippancy. They're both doing well with the characters they've chosen to play, but they're clearly much less interesting than the roles on the page. I didn't believe that I was watching Mr and Mrs Bennet. They're worse than any other attempt I've seen at these two wonderful roles, including an amateur village performance.
Apart from them everyone's good, but I had to wrinkle my nose to write that. They're good in a rather theoretical way, since the supporting cast gets little chance to impress. Shockingly this is a Pride and Prejudice adaptation in which the Bennet family are bland. Clearly this is a catastrophe, since great swathes of the story involve all-female interaction. I'm still wondering where the blame lies. The performers are good, but perhaps not doing enough with their characterisations. The silly girls aren't silly enough. The director could have done more, although I'm also no fan of the script. Of the Bennet sisters, Maureen O'Sullivan is stunningly attractive as Jane and obviously has charisma to spare, but we hardly meet her. To my surprise I was impressed the most with Marsha Hunt as Mary (sister #3), who does so much with so little that the film throws in a husband for her at the end. She's delightful and outshines everyone except the leads and the monsters.
Of those, I was surprised most by the monsters. Obviously you expect Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy to burn a hole in the screen, especially when one of them's Laurence Olivier. Nevertheless the best characters here are the snooty, stuck-up, pompous snobs. Melville Cooper is wonderful in the deceptively tricky role of Mr Collins, looking so much like a young Michael Hordern that I was convinced it was him. The problem with Collins is that he's meant to be a crashing bore. Get him right and you'll steal the show, but get it wrong and you'll bore the audience too. He's the weakest element of the 1995 BBC adaptation, for instance. However here the film came alive when Collins turned up. Furthermore Edna May Oliver and Frieda Inescort have a lot of fun being evil, with Oliver in particular never failing to put a smile on my face.
However fundamentally none of those matter. It's really all about Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Garson gives a strong performance, perhaps not as witty as I'd like an Elizabeth Bennet to be and very occasionally a little mannered, but certainly never tipping over the edge into needing a good slap. That's always a danger. Olivier however does everything you'd expect of him, in particular finding the heart of Jane Austen in a way that seems to elude much of the rest of the film. The key thing about Austen is her language. Her wit can cut you to ribbons and she's capable of being a terrifying bitch, but she does it all through this tinkling, mannered dialogue that on the surface is often saying nothing at all. That's the society she's portraying. It's all about the gulf between the sugared surface and the emotional truth. Olivier understands that and when he's around it's a different film. His scenes with Garson are excellent, without which of course the film would have been barely watchable.
However the story! That script! Mind you, almost until the end I thought it was quite good. Obviously it's not a work of genius, unlike Austen's original, but it's a faithful adaptation that hits all the important story points. However its changes clearly make it a lesser work. Firstly, they've shoved aside the supporting cast and their romances. Wickham and Lydia? Jane and Bingley? We hardly see them, not even Maureen O'Sullivan. This streamlining makes for an occasionally thin, watery story, in which we're merely told that people are in love with each other. Do we see it for ourselves? Do we buggery. Hell, it's not just key plot points that come down to us second-hand. One scene has Elizabeth Bennet telling us about a conversation she's just had. Huh? Did they run out of shooting time or something? Couldn't we have just seen the conversation?
On reflection, I think the blandness of the Bennet family is about half-and-half the fault of the acting (mostly Boland and Gwenn) and the writing. Lydia's big scene at the end proves that Ann Rutherford could easily have done more, for instance, had she been given the material to work with. She wasn't.
The biggest problem though is the romance. This means discussing the plot, i.e. spoilers. As everyone knows, the story of Pride and Prejudice revolves around marriage proposals. There's a "no" and a "yes". Unfortunately this script is focused so firmly on the "yes" that it doesn't properly sell its "no". It should come halfway through. It doesn't. Three-quarters of the movie have gone before we get there, after which it's less than ten minutes until Elizabeth realises her mistake with an "I love him." At least try to keep us in suspense, couldn't you? Similarly Lady Catherine gets transformed by the author's magic wand into a benevolent fairy, but only after they've tried to have their cake and eat it with a faithful version of the "do you promise not to get engaged?" scene.
The result of all this is paradoxically to water down the "yes". By that point it's a foregone conclusion. By driving so hard for their big romantic payoff, they kill it.
Bizarrely I'd call this film anti-romantic. Yes, that's right. In an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The central Elizabeth-Darcy romance is undermined, while in contrast one's made very aware of the two earlier disastrous marriages from which no long-term happiness can come. The difference is that Lydia is airheaded and delusional, while Mr Collins's betrothed is brutally unsentimental in her low expectations. The film doesn't even try to soft-soap it, but instead plays it up. Almost at the climax is a rather shocking scene in which Lydia's going ga-ga with happiness about her marriage to a swine. If only the film could have given us the real Mr and Mrs Bennet instead of these imposters, we'd have had one of the blackest deconstructions I've seen of the wedded state.
Oh, and the costumes are completely wrong. Admittedly I've never liked the early nineteenth-century fashion for maternity gowns, but what we have here is farcical. The women are wrapped up like Christmas presents. They have sleeves like barrage balloons and great hooped dresses that must be four feet across at the base. They're like alien cone people. There's a line from Mr Darcy about admiring women's figures, which one has to take as ironic given the Victorian fashions on display. It's as historically authentic as a ghetto blaster, but certainly more impressive than the correct period would have been.
1 - isn't Elizabeth's position as the thinker of the Bennet sisters rather undermined by turning Mary into a philosophy-crazed bookworm? However it's what gives Marsha Hunt a chance to shine, so I'm happy with it.
2 - it's just a throwaway, but I liked the line about "proud" and "prejudiced".
3 - "condescension" really doesn't mean what it did 200 years ago, does it?
I've been harsh about this film, but I'm comparing it with Jane Austen. That's pretty much perfection. This is an excellent film with some great monsters and even a few authentic Austen moments. I had a lot of fun with it. Its weakest elements are merely not as good as they might have been, while its best scenes are splendid. The problem is that it's less cynical and catty than Austen was, and so ironically doesn't have her heart and honesty either.