Susan Year Itch: The birth (and rebirth) of the RomCom!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a book in possession of a good cast of characters must be in want of filmic interpretations. However, my star rating, once lost, is lost forever.

I need to warn you that if you take any of my below advice, you may end up suffering a bit of a shock when you return to the real world of commuting, condos, and commercials. It’s a little like having a “case of the Mondays,” only instead of looking bleakly ahead to the work week in front of you, you try to accept the fact that you will never be able to “take a turn about your drawing room” without tripping over a dog toy or a Wiimote.

I attempt to, though. It’s pretty clear when I’ve been indulging in too much 19th century literature: my husband gallantly ignores the florid language I try to incorporate into my texts (“I shall take my departure from my place of business directly and, in my mechanical future-carriage, will endeavor to devote myself to the arduous journey home.”) and my dog gallantly accepts her new nickname, Mr. Charles Bingley (no really, they are exactly alike!!). It gets to be such a sickness that three years ago I resolved to choose a literary theme for myself each year* that did not include Eliot, Austen, or the Brontes. Now that I’m out of school for good, no one is going to encourage me to expand my horizons but myself.

But alas! I made no such restriction on my movie-watching experiences, so from time to time, I fall off the wagon and acquire my English countryside fix with almost shameful gluttony. Lately, I have really thrown caution to the wind. I knew when I read a description of Lost in Austen (regular gal loves P&P, ends up living it) that I should avoid it for fear of the post-Austen depression with which I was so familiar. However, the circumstances were against me. I was alone, Bingley was sleeping happily on my lap, and, dammit, in the poster, the main character looked eerily like yours truly. I’m not big on fate, but that is tough to resist.

In the following weeks, I rolled up my sleeves and did some rewatching research in order to put this column together. I leave it to you to discuss amongst yourselves the inspiring dedication I have for my craft.**

Pride and Prejudice: The One with All the Gazing

Director: Simon Langton, 1995
Starring: Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth

Often described as the quintessential and most complete P&P, this BBC/A&E miniseries leaves very little out (and very little to the imagination – oy, those britches!), and so for that reason, I’ve listed it first. If this is your first foray, you need to start with all the information. If this is your 800th foray, like it was mine, you need to be reminded. Colin Firth’s Darcy has an arsenal of stares with minute variations that mean different things, Elizabeth scoffs, and Mary is completely hilarious. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why Adrian Lukis was cast as the devastatingly handsome (or I guess reptilian and gross?) Wickham, but David Bamber is the second best Mr. Collins, and both of the elder Bennetts are spot-on. The cinematography is less sweeping than it is just pleasant, but there’s something undeniably compelling about that tiny glimpse of frustrated Darcy that this one affords us. The climax, I’m sorry to say after repeated watchings, is somewhat lacking in passion, but there are enough emotions packed into all of those gazes from across the sitting room to make up for it.

Banter score: 3
Heartstring manipulation score: 4
Casting score: 4.5
Darcy-induced swoon score: 4 (……..He’s looking at me again!)

Pride and Prejudice: The Old One

Director: Robert Z. Leonard, 1940
Starring: Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier

My mom made me read the book (she sent it with me to summer camp when I was nine, even the counselors made fun of me) before I watched this movie, her favorite. While I truly believe that reading the book will enrich your moviewatching experience, just enjoy the films if you want to without feeling guilty. Why not? Our repeated viewings of this film were like a quicker way to get to the payoff (Olivier softening up). While nobody does tense romantic banter like 1940s Hollywood, it doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch, and, to be honest, it probably was my mom’s favorite because Colin Firth had yet to wear the Darcy scowl.

Banter score: 5
Heartstring manipulation score: 2.5
Casting score: 3
Darcy-induced swoon score: 4 (Olivier is still Olivier)

Becoming Jane: The One That Remembered That Shakespeare in Love Won Some Oscars

Director: Julian Jarrold, 2007
Starring: Anne Hathaway (as Jane Austen) and James McAvoy (as her own personal Darcy)

Before there was P&P, there was Jane and That Guy! Yes, Jane LIVED P&P, this movie would have you believe, and just like Shakespeare in Love, there are poignant conclusions to draw from the famous author’s interactions as a young lady. Unlike Shakespeare in Love, this movie is dumb. I’ve positioned it here so that your P&P knowledge will be complete before you watch a film that does nothing but allude to it, but you won’t be entirely disappointed. The casting is pretty great. Who’s more adorable than Anne Hathaway, anyway? Answer: James McAvoy. Also, the sets are amazing, the costumes are pretty, but the rest of the movie is just forgettable. Well, not the entirety of the movie – there is one utterly heartstopping romantic interaction that I still think about sometimes when I’m stuck in a meeting or waiting at the doctor’s office. It’s an old habit that’s hard to break, and I challenge you not to feel some emotions when it happens. In general, however, you can get the James McAvoy On An English Estate effect with phenomenal writing and directing by just renting Atonement.

Banter score: 3.5
Heartstring manipulation score: 2 (one scene gets a 5)
Casting score: 4
Darcy-induced swoon score: 2

Bridget Jones’s Diary: The Fun One!

Director: Sharon Maguire, 2001
Starring: Renee Zellweger (as Bridget Jones, aka the Generally Luckless Version of Elizabeth Bennett) and Colin Firth (as Darcy) (yep!)

I’d seen this at least twice before I realized what was going on here. It’s not a one-to-one interpretation of P&P, but it certainly does get close. Bridget seems to combine all of the Bennett sisters (Elizabeth’s cleverness, Jane’s sweetness, Mary’s awkwardness, Kitty’s tendency to giggle, and Lydia’s flirtatiousness), and the misfortunes with Wickham (in this case Daniel Cleaver, played by Hugh Grant) are all her own. Luckily, this jerk she knows named Mark Darcy, whom she had prejudged to be full of pride, just as he had prejudged her own pride (nasty cycle, everyone!), has extensive prior experience with meaningful gazes.

Banter score: 4
Heartstring manipulation score: 4
Casting score: 5
Darcy-induced swoon score: 3.5 (I never quite buy Mark Darcy’s interest in Bridget, but have you seen him in his barrister outfit?)

Pride & Prejudice: The Beautiful One

Director: Joe Wright, 2005
Starring: Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen

After all of these interpretations, you can reward yourself with the most stunning example of all. Directed by the guy who did the aforementioned masterpiece, Atonement, Elizabeth and Darcy trudge around an epically beautiful Georgian England. I remember the first time I ever took an interest in the Best Cinematographer Award was when I was fifteen and Michael Coulter had been nominated for Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility (throw this into the mix before Bridget Jones’s Diary, if you want to be convinced that Hugh Grant is capable of different roles). Wright’s Pride & Prejudice blows S&S out of the water, hands down. The attention here is to detail instead of to text accuracy (but everyone still stares at each other, don’t worry), and it’s possible that you will slide out of your chair and onto the floor in an attempt to wrestle with the unfamiliar shudderings in your robot heart.

My only complaint is that the (finally!) beautiful Wickham (Rupert Friend) has very little screen time. Luckily for me, he stars in The Young Victoria, and though he is sans ponytail in that one, he does have a tiny moustache. Oh, and also he isn’t evil. Win!

Banter score: 4 (Darcy and Elizabeth have less witty banter here and more stinging barbs)
Heartstring manipulation score: 5
Casting score: 5
Darcy-induced swoon score: 100 (I type this from the floor, where I slid yesterday afternoon and whence I will be unable to remove myself for about another week)***

Lost in Austen: The One Where You Get to Be In It

Director: Dan Zeff, 2008
Starring: Gemma Arterton and Elliott Cowan, but, surprise! They don’t get to meet, because Elizabeth switches places with London 2008 twentysomething Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper)!

Part what-if comedy, and part world collision, the BBC miniseries does not leave out the parts we all want, although at various times, you’re convinced it’s going to. Amanda is discontented with her 2008 life and longs to go back to the times depicted in her favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. When a portal opens up that allows her to do just that (suspend that disbelief!), she finds herself not just hanging around Georgian England, she’s actually IN the Bennett household. Believing that she will ruin the world somehow if she doesn’t help things move along exactly as they ought, Amanda does her best to fit in while pushing the correct people towards the other correct people. Almost immediately, things begin to fall apart. Turns out all of that romance and gallantry is quickly forgotten when you realize you have to brush your teeth with twigs and chalk. It’s over three hours long, and I watched it twice in a week.

Banter score: 5 (It’s the dialogue in this that makes it so worthwhile. Not convinced? Imagine Bingley’s reaction when he’s told someone is a lesbian.)
Heartstring manipulation score: 4
Casting score: 5 (I’m pretty sure this is the best cast I’ve seen yet, with the exception of Amanda herself, who’s kind of supposed to be annoying, so I’ll give it a pass.)
Darcy-induced swoon score: 5 (Cowan’s Darcy isn’t quite as reserved as Firth’s or as expressive as Macfadyen’s, his contempt and anger is more terrifying, causing the respite to seem sweeter).

*I miss you 2009: Year of Fantasy.
**”Watching what I want and then babbling about it” – THERE ARE WORSE CRAFTS!
***Val has been image searching for this article, and I’m pretty sure she is on the floor too, judging from the occasional “SIGH” and “GAH” and “MY HEAAARRRTTTT” I keep hearing from the IM window.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson writes all sorts of things — from marketing content to movie reviews to this very bio.

17 comments on Susan Year Itch: The birth (and rebirth) of the RomCom!

  1. Is this article really just a love letter you wrote to me? Well, I don’t mind sharing your sentiments with the world at large. Of course I have a thousand comments, but I’ll keep it to a minimum:

    – The gazing!!!!!!!!!! Also, if you haven’t watched the special features that come with this version, you should. There is a lot of joking about those trousers.
    – I couldn’t make it over the threshold of the 1940s one, because the costumes are so wrong it gags me. I did, however, just read an interesting article pertaining to Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet: http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/seen-over-the-ether-greer-garson-as-elizabeth-bennet/
    – I enjoyed Becoming Jane but wouldn’t get it and watch it all the time or anything. It’s hard to buy a lot of speculation about a romance we know very little about, too.
    – The barrister outfit!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111
    – Matthew Macfadyen basically swooped down into the Va Center Commons Regal Cinemas in 2005, wrestled me out of Colin Firth’s clutches, and has been taking me on an extended tour of the countryside ever since. Seriously, seriously…the first proposal scene? In the rain? With all the anguish, and all the dripping…..aaaaaaaaaaaahhh! Also, fun fact: people searching for “Matthew Macfadyen” brings way more traffic to my blog than people searching for anything that actually has to do with me. Also: I assume you’ve seen Little Dorrit?
    – I could not STAND the main character in Lost in Austen (oh look how crass I am, guess that makes me really “modern,” oh look how flat-ironed my hair is, blah blah blah), but I agree that it’s a lot of fun to watch thanks to the rest of the cast. I loved the part where she was like “Will you do something for me?” and then you see Darcy emerging from the pond. Total shout-out to all the Austen freaks in the audience. I actually shouted “OH NO SHE DIDN’T!” at the television. And 21st century Lizzie Bennet? How cute was the pixie cut? I love that she had no problem whatsoever fitting in.

    Well now that I’ve made a blathering fangirl of myself…

  2. We are 100% in agreement on all of these statements. Shall we take a turn about the drawing room?

  3. Indeed, although Mr. Darcy shan’t join us, for he can observe our figures better from where he sits.

  4. This column made my day.

    That is all.

  5. Sarah on said:

    There was a period of my life in which I watched “The one with all the gazing” almost every day. That was an amazing article, thanks for the great read.

  6. Sarah on said:

    Also, this is just about P&P, think how many more articles you could do if you expanded to all of Austen’s work. I smell a series. . .

  7. –I can’t believe I’m going to the trouble to type this, but “The One With All the Gazing” also deserves a shout-out as “The One With The Best Lydia Bennett.” Julia Sawalha is amazing(!!!), especially if you’ve also seen her as the super-uptight Saffron on AbFab. I hate to say it, but Jena Malone was a real disappointment as Lydia; too breathy and artificial.

    – I couldn’t get thru Becoming Jane, but then I don’t really like Anne Hathaway. It really just made me want to watch Atonement again :-)

    – Susan — who do you think is the first-best Mr. Collins?

    – And am I the only person who compares the different heroes and villains of Austen’s world to one another? Like the fact that the hero of Sense & Sensibility, Edward Ferrars, is guilty of the same crime as the cad in Emma, Frank Churchill — being secretly engaged. So of course the cad in S&S must be guilty of something Very Bad Indeed. Also, Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon makes me swoon just as much as any Darcy.

    More of these please!

  8. First best Collins is the guy in Lost in Austen!

    Ew! http://austenprose.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/lost_in_austen_collins1w.jpg

  9. Justin on said:

    Why did we collectively decide that Elizabeth Bennet looks like that? She looks the same in every version (except the Old One). Does Jane actually describe her? I can’t remember. TIME TO REREAD I GUESS.

  10. Beth on said:

    Which was the scene in Becoming Jane you were referring to? I can think of a few different moments and am curious which it was for you.

    Also, thanks for mentioning Lost in Austen — I heard of it a while back and meant to see it, but had since forgotten about it. I appreciate the reminder! :)

  11. Collins was pretty terrifying in Lost in Austen, but I loved him from the 2005 version. Just the way he says “What excellent boiled potatoes!” wins me over. And standing all sad in the middle of the party at Netherfield, holding that little flower in his hand.

  12. Mom on said:

    Loved your column on P&P etc. The ratings are right-on, at least for the ones I’ve seen. I really do like Sense and Sensiblility, though, mainly for the scene where Hugh Grant is astride his horse at the end. Elizabeth’s dress in the 1940′s version of P&P looks just like something Anna in the King and I would wear!
    Always enjoy your columns…

  13. MY MOM, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!

    Beth – I was referring to the dance scene pictured above. I’m pretty sure I burst immediately into tears! Ahem, that scene may be available in its entirety on YouTube if, ahem, you are inclined to watch it.

    Tess – Totally. That Collins has the best haircut too. There’s this one moment in The One With All the Gazing in which Collins does this little simpering wave that has me on the floor (with laughter, not a heart explosion) every time! It must be the most fun to play Collins or Mary. In the play I’m going to put on at some point, I’m totally casting myself as both.

  14. Betty P Thomas on said:

    Don’t forget, you’ve got “P&P&Zombies” to look forward to!

  15. The fact that we have to differentiate between “laughter” and “heart explosion” as far as falling on the floor goes means we’ve won.

    In my version of P&P (in which you play both Collins and Mary), Collins and Mary play out what I’ve always considered the unspoken scene — the one where Collins falls in love with Mary. The part that should have happened. You’ll be hilarious in it, of course.

    I read P&P&Z, was amused by it, and look forward to the movie as always, because for some reason I’m Just. Not. Done. With. This. Story. Yet. And because I’d like to see an Austen-era dojo.

  16. I love the idea of P&P&Z, but I was afraid to read the book because fear of zombies keeps me up at night. I hope Richard Armitage is cast as Darcy in it, because I think he’d be perfect.

  17. I assume they’re also writing “Persuasion….to be a Vampire!”

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