In the eighteenth century the Bennet family resides in the English countryside, a time and place where only male heirs could inherit property. Having been 'blessed' with five daughters, Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn, "Beyond the Sea") is in a constant state of agitation looking for suitable husbands to provide for them should Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland, "Cold Mountain") predecease her. When wealthy Londoner Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) takes up residence in a nearby estate, a country ball is thrown and the Bennets' eldest, Jane (Rosamund Pike, "Die Another Day") catches his eye, but Bingley's friend, the arrogant and even richer Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen, "The Reckoning"), is quickly loathed by the high-spirited and modern second eldest Bennet daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, "King Arthur"). Intelligent though she is, Lizzy's quickness to judgement blinds her to her own "Pride & Prejudice."
Jane Austen, who all but invented the romantic comedy formula of keeping her intended couples at odds until her stories' endings, has had five of her six novels adapted for the movies, and all at least once for television, but, with the exception of last year's Bollywoodized "Bride & Prejudice," the novel that is perhaps her most famous work hasn't appeared on the big screen since the 1940 Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson starrer. What a delight, then, to discover first time feature director Joe Wright actually surpassing that classic adaptation by letting some fresh air into it. Keira Knightley, whose star has ascended quicker than her talents could be ascertained, proves that she's got the stuff with her deeply sympathetic portrayal of the rash but well-intentioned Elizabeth.
Wright distinguishes himself immediately, opening with a long tracking shot that follows Lizzy, lost in a book, as she approaches her decidedly rustic home. As she bypasses the front door, the camera (cinematography by Roman Osin, "The Warrior") sneaks past, zigzagging through the disheveled living rooms of the Bennets before meeting up with her again at the home's rear. Wright is giving Austen 'The Return of Martin Guerre' treatment, a realistic look at appearances of the time, right down to the flattened, somewhat dirty appearance of Knightley's hair that certainly feels right for the time. Bennet family breakfasts are noisy, grabby, finger-licking affairs, a large boisterous group beginning their day. No wonder the household's lone male, well-intentioned if precariously lax Mr. Bennet, hides away with his books and his orchids.
The ball which introduces this clan to the sophisticated Londoners ('We're a long way from Grovesnor Square' sniffs Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly, "L'Auberge espagnole)) is almost like a Ceilidh. Local dancers actually perspire from their exertions. Perhaps this is why Darcy responds to Lizzy's query as to whether he dances with 'Not if I can help it,' but before long the unusual girl will have him breaking a sweat as he struggles to right the social wrongs he does the Bennets to gain her favor. Austen, of course, (screenplay by Deborah Moggach with an uncredited dialogue buff by Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for adapting Austen's "Sense and Sensibility") will throw many obstacles and misunderstandings the couple's way, including Mr. Wickkham (Rupert Friend), the underhanded officer and former friend of Darcy's who eventually subjects the Bennet family to scandal in his romancing of Lydia Bennet (Jena Malone, "Saved!," "The Ballad of Jack and Rose") and the obsequious and self-important Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander, "The Lawless Heart," "Stage Beauty," in an inspired supporting performance), who believes he's doing Elizabeth a favor by asking for her hand.
Knightley manages the complex Elizabeth beautifully, projecting intelligence and humor and acting rashly while seeming to be thoughtful. Her dawning recognition of her feelings for Darcy inspire heart-stopping suspense in our desire to see the lovers united. And Matthew MacFadyen is a terrific Darcy, not just misunderstood, but initially truly arrogant, a man ripe for being brought down a peg or two. MacFadyen, like Knightley, must also handle dueling characteristics and the actor quiet believably arcs his character from snob to gentleman. He's also quite funny, both in control, such as when he analyzes his sister's motivations for parading around the room, or out of it, when his very flustered Darcy tries to practice the fine art of conversation with a perplexed Lizzy. Support is almost too numerous to mention, but note should go to both Donald Sutherland as Lizzy's doting but clueless dad and Brenda Blethyn, whose brand of tizzy theatrics is perfect for the match-making mother. Rosamund Pike and Simon Woods are a simpler, but complementary pair to the leads. Judi Dench ("Die Another Day") shifts tones too abruptly as Lady Catherine de Bourg, Mr. Collins' wealthy benefactor, whose late interrogation of Elizabeth seems out of character from the imperious but interested woman we meet earlier.
For a first time director, Wright shows a strong sense of style. He repeats widescreen pastoral compositions featuring one or two characters that are both beautiful and distinctive. Perhaps his most unusual idea is his use of sound (sound mixing by Danny Hambrook, "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit") during the Bingley ball. It fades in and out, making Collins's attentions to Elizabeth like the buzzing of a gnat, then fades away almost altogether except for the conversation of Elizabeth and Darcy, their attention to each other precluding everything around them. It is a device that could have called undue attention to itself, but in Wright's hands it feels organic. Both costume (Jacqueline Durran, "Vera Drake") and hair and makeup (Sarah Love, "King Arthur") are refreshingly realistic rather than over-glossed.
The movie wraps with two wonderful scenes, its penultimate one a glowing projection of paternal love that just delights. "Pride & Prejudice" is that most unusual of films - one that improves upon its golden age forebear.
Jane Austen’s tale about Elizabeth Bennet (Kiera Knightley), her four sisters and the hunky Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) has been kicking around for quite some time on film, beginning with the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier big screen version in 1940 and a number of television creations since. First time feature film director Joe Wright takes on the task of bringing Ms. Austen’s classic to the silver screen once again in “Pride & Prejudice.”
This a genuinely pleasant surprise as the intro feature work for helmer Joe Wright as he takes on the complex family life of the middle-class Bennet family, circa the late 1700’s Georgian England, and draws the viewer into their world. Elizabeth is a pretty and intelligent young woman who has a mind of her own. She and her sisters (no boys in the Bennet family besides its patriarch (Donald Sutherland)) know that they must marry well if they are to keep the family manor together.
When well to do Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) arrives on the scene with his sister, Caroline (Kelly Reilly), things start to look up for at least one of the Bennet girls. Even more interesting is Bingley’s friend, the wealthy and taciturn Mr. Darcy who maintains an aloof, almost snobbish air. Elizabeth and Darcy don’t hit it off when he disdains the unsophisticated world the Bennets live in, but it is soon obvious that there is a hidden spark between the two that will come out sooner or later.
The trials and tribulations the bossy Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) and her daughters face in finding suitable husbands is the meat of “Pride & Prejudice.” This fleshes out the expected romance between Elizabeth and Darcy and gives the story and the film the richness that makes Jane Austen such a wonderful source for sophisticated period romances.
The acting is, across the board, first rate. Kiera Knightley is the strong central character in this play of passions and displays far more screen presence than in the recent “Domino.” But, she is also surrounded by a cast of characters that are all full bodied and believable. Relative unknown Matthew MacFadyen strikes an impressive pose as the tall, handsome Mr. Darcy. His initially dour countenance is slowly but surely tempered by the charm and intelligence that is Elizabeth. The rest of the Bennet girls – Mary (Talulah Riley), Jane (Rosamund Pike) , Lydia (Jena Malone) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan) – are all individuals with different personalities, moods and temperaments. Brenda Blythan, as conniving, manipulative mom, has fun chewing scenery while Donald Sutherland lends his usual mettle as the loving father in a house full of women.
But, the excellence in casting doesn’t stop with the principle players. Simon Woods’s pleasant Mr. Bingley is eminently likable. Kelly Reilly, as his sister Caroline, is conniving and protective of her brother. Dame Judi Dench, in a small but effective role as aristocratic Lady Catherine, carries herself with regal dignity. The rest of the characters are uniformly well played.
Pride & Prejudice” is lush and richly appointed from production design, by Sarah Greenwood, to costume, by Jacqueline Durran, lending the film its look of Georgian England. Lensing, by Roman Osin (a name I’m not familiar with), is finely detailed in both the numerous social gatherings the Bennets attend and the panoramic, beautifully composed shots of the English landscapes. Other techs, like sound and music, fit the bill, too.
Jane Austen has to be one of the great sources of material for “chick flicks” but her intelligent writing transcends this simplification. Deborah Moggach (with an uncredited Emma Thomson) does a solid job adapting Austen’s timeless work and makes the centuries old tome fresh and new.
Pride & Prejudice” is literature come to life on the screen. It is an impressive debut for director Wright and reps an equally impressive performance by young Kiera Knightley. The rest of the cast and crew are no slouches, either. I give it an A-.
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