TORONTO—Brenda Blethyn has something she wants to make very clear to Jane Austen fans. There's nothing silly about Mrs. Bennet.
The two-time Oscar nominee (Little Voice and Secrets & Lies) plays the archetypal busybody mom in the new big-screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley (Domino) as-take a moment to suspend your disbelief-the Bennets' second-prettiest daughter, Elizabeth. And Mrs. Bennet's mission in life is to marry off her five girls before Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) dies of acute nagging.
If you skipped the book in school, or missed the various TV versions—including the one that turned Colin Firth into every literate woman's dream date—Pride & Prejudice (which opens Friday [November 11] in Vancouver) is pretty much the definitive comedic English love story after Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. In this case, Elizabeth isn't quite shrewish, but she's certainly standoffish around perpetually brooding nobleman Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen from the British TV series, Spooks). Although their romance is at the centre of the story, it's defined and complicated by the four other daughters playing matrimonial roulette and Mr. Darcy's family connections-notably Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench).
Thanks to the now-iconic 1995 BBC adaptation, the big question the filmmakers behind Pride & Prejudice have faced is why bother to adapt it again. First-time feature director Joe Wright explains that this is actually the only time the book has been on the big screen since Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson played the leading lovers in 1940. It's also the first time the parts have been played on-screen by actors who are actually as young as the characters in the novel.
Blethyn, who spoke with the Straight in a room at the Four Seasons on the night of the film's world premiere at September's Toronto International Film Festival, is a bit baffled about concerns the story has already been told. "It's not a competition; it's just a different orchestra with a slightly different arrangement, and it's either to your preference or not. People talk glowingly about the BBC version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth-which I haven't seen yet, but I'm going to enjoy watching that-and I think that's great and there will be more."
Blethyn's affection for Mrs. Bennet goes back to her earliest days as an actor. She'd read the book on a friend's recommendation at age 14, and that same year the first role she played in school was Mrs. Bennet. "It was one little scene in the school classic society. And I had forgotten about it and I remembered it last week," says Blethyn. "That was the first thing I did at school, the first thing I ever did. I hope it isn't the last. I hope it hasn't gone full circle," she says with a laugh.
Even though it's tough not to cringe when Mrs. Bennet brazenly wades into her mission as matchmaker, Blethyn says the first thing she mentioned when she was offered the role is that she only wanted it if the script respected the character. "I'm happy to play this role if it's not trivialized in any way, because I think she's got a real problem and I think it should be given the respect due." She says director Wright completely agreed. "I really enjoyed playing her because a lot of people said she was a cartoony character, a figure of fun and I defended her. I said, 'No, she's not. She's got five daughters, unmarried, and that's not funny.'?" Then Blethyn flashes another smile. "But how she deals with it might be."
As Mrs. Bennet and Blethyn are both quick to point out, property in late-18th-century England was passed down through the males of the family, so if the daughters weren't married off in time, they could face lives of poverty. And thanks to war, there was a distinct lack of potential husbands in the dating pool.
Blethyn also notes that the book is written from the perspective of a teenage daughter-Austen was only 21 when she wrote it-and that every teenage girl finds her mother embarrassing. "All moms embarrass their children. My mom used to come on the bus with me before I could drive, to go to the railway station. And I soon realized why she wanted to do this. Because she'd wait till I was right at the other end of the bus, getting off, and she'd say, 'Oh Brenda, are you on the BBC or the ITV tonight?' And I'd get off cringing with embarrassment."