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TORONTO - She was, Jane Austen tells us, "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news."
She is, of course, Mrs. Bennet, mother of five daughters in Austen's beloved novel "Pride and Prejudice." On screen, in the many film and television versions of the novel, her obsession with improving the lot of her girls is often played for laughs; she's a meddling, comical yenta. But British actress Brenda Blethyn, who plays the role in Joe Wright's new film version of "Pride & Prejudice," wanted to do something different.
"I thought it was important not to trivialize her," said Blethyn, in Toronto after the film's North American premiere. "When I would tell people I was hoping to play this part, they'd say, oh, she's a wonderful cartoon, an over-the-top character. I'd say, no she's not! She's the only one taking the problem seriously, and it's a real problem."
The two-time Oscar nominee (for "Secrets and Lies" and "Little Voice") said she gave much thought to the sober reality of Mrs. Bennet's predicament as the matriarch of a not-wealthy family without a male heir in Regency England, in the late 18th century. "This was before any kind of social benefits," Blethyn said. "The money goes down the male line. There's no problem as long as Mr. Bennet's alive, so he wasn't too concerned. But (Mrs. Bennet) keeps reminding him."
Mrs. Bennet, it turns out, is a bit of a blank slate for an actress. The character - whose first name we never learn - is mostly revealed in the novel through dialogue, with Austen providing little description or editorializing. Blethyn also notes that we are seeing Mrs. Bennet from the perspective of a young woman, barely out of her teens. (Austen was 21 when she wrote the original manuscript.)
"I think most of us at some point in our lives found our mothers embarrassing, their pride and their boasting," said Blethyn, laughing. "My mum certainly embarrassed me!"
Though Blethyn longed for the role - she'd loved the novel since reading it as a girl - she worried that her vision might not fit with that of Wright's. She remembers her first meeting with the director: "I said to Joe, I would love to play this part, but you're not going to make her a caricature, are you? I think you have to understand her problem. He said, `absolutely. I wouldn't want you to play it that way, I'm asking you because I think you won't do that.'"
Wright's approach to the material emphasized realism over caricature, even in the details. The cast, which also includes Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy and Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet, assembled last year to shoot the film on location at several stately homes in the British countryside. Blethyn and the rest of the Bennet family got a bonus: a pre-shooting weekend at Groombridge Place, nearby in southern English, which played the role of the Bennet family home.
The property, with its 1660 house (it's a modern dwelling, so to speak; the estate dates from around 1200), was in the process of changing hands, for only the second time in 400 years. "Joe had the wonderful idea of us all going down to Groombridge Place the weekend before we started filming, to get to know the house more," said Blethyn. "We played hide and seek in the house for the best part of the day." Once production started, cast members not being filmed would retreat not to trailers but to their character's bedrooms.
Wright encouraged the cast to ad-lib lines and talk all at once, as a real family would - particularly one with five chatty daughters. And at family meals, the Bennets dove in with gusto, compared with more formal manners when company was present. "They're kind of like a scrum, when they're on their own," said Blethyn fondly.
The costumes, by Jacqueline Durran, added to the realistic effect. The hems of the skirts are dirty, and if you look closely, you can see that many of the dresses are mended. "There are little patches in (Mrs. Bennet's) dresses that have been made with the new fabric from the girls' dresses," remembered Blethyn. "The dresses are all handmade, as they would have been."
Blethyn, who'll next be seen opposite Peter Mullan in the contemporary British drama "On a Clear Day," recently saw the completed "Pride & Prejudice" for the first time, and, like the legions of other readers and viewers of this story over the years, she found herself caught up in its central romance. "The scenes between Matthew and Keira, I hadn't seen until I watched the film," she said, "and I just got that feeling in my tummy, of longing for them to work it out."
(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.