Monday, November 14, 2005

"Pride and Prejudice" shows a new sense & sensibility


directed by Joe Wright
starring Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFayden, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn, Jena Malone, Judi Dench

The latest film version of “Pride and Prejudice” is proof that Austen’s most popular novel can be effectively reinvented for every new generation of moviegoers. This one is designed to please both P&P neophytes and long-time fans, since it remains faithful to its source without getting mired in literal-mindedness. Lively, funny, and heartfelt, it’s briskly paced and directed with flair by someone who’s clearly brought a fresh eye to an old story.

And left me oddly dissatisfied.

Why? Hard to say. I’m not an Austen purist, nor am I wedded to the 1995 A&E television adaptation that made Colin Firth an international heartthrob. (A six-hour miniseries, after all, is a very different proposition from a two-hour movie.) Still, I can’t let go of the feeling that this take on P&P exhibits a sensibility rather different from Austen’s. There's genuine emotion felt and expressed in the novel, as in all her novels, but it’s always several layers beneath the cool elegance and clarity of her prose. In the film, by contrast, the emotions run much closer to the surface, and always seem to be on the verge of breaking through. As if to accentuate this, many of the critical scenes from the book, which take place in enclosed rooms, are here moved outdoors, while the boundaries between indoors and outside are softened, so that at one moment it looks like pigs or cows are actually being led into the house. Additionally, we get several shots of the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), gazing pensively out on some vast expanse of nature (rugged cliff, or misty meadow) as she ponders the inner tumult of her mind. These liberties have stirred some complaints that the film gives Austen a treatment more suited to Byron or the Brontë sisters. If you don’t mind that, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t thoroughly enjoy the movie. (Except, I must gripe, for the very last scene, which is literally gratuitous—having been added only to the American cut of the film—and unbelievably cheesy.)

The casting of the two leads fits the movie’s tone. Knightley brings her characteristic verve to the role of Elizabeth, though she also shows greater depths than in her previous work. She conveys Lizzy’s saucy playfulness and physical spryness (a quality not at all realized in other adaptations), as well as her capacity for love, anger, and regret. The one thing she does *not* convey is Elizabeth’s intelligence. Which isn't to say she comes across as dumb - she doesn't. But what makes Elizabeth so attractive in the book is her wit and perception: it’s because she’s so smart that her mistakes and misjudgments are so interesting. That aspect of her character is obscured, if not obliterated, by the sheer force of Knightley’s élan, which feels closer to Marianne Dashwood than Elizabeth Bennet. On the other hand, Matthew MacFayden is pitch-perfect as her reluctant soulmate, exuding just the right combination of hauteur, reserve, and suppressed feeling—even if his hair persists in looking a little too romantically disheveled for someone as fastidious as Mr. Darcy. (And, to steal a quip directed at a different Mr. Darcy, he really should rethink the length of his sideburns.)

The rest of the cast ably provides comic relief, from the wonderful Brenda Blethyn as Elizabeth’s nerve-racked mother to Tom Hollander as the pompous Mr. Collins and Judi Dench as his overbearing patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. There’s a bit too much giggling and cavorting by the younger Bennet sisters (I get that Lydia and Kitty are supposed to be giddy flirts, but enough already!), and the edges are shaved off the character of Elizabeth’s father (a very appealing Donald Sutherland), though he still gets the best lines. The more serious supporting players get even shorter shrift: Wickham, in particular (played by a dead ringer for Orlando Bloom), is far too marginalized, though that’s likely a byproduct of the fact that the narrative had to be so tightly condensed. Still, as a foil to Darcy and a rival for Lizzy’s affections, he barely registers a presence.

P&P is of course as much sharp-eyed comedy of manners as fairy-tale romance, and the movie handles the satirical elements with some deftness. Director Joe Wright has a trick of moving the camera in one long take through a series of juxtaposed social tableaux, whether at a ball or the Bennets’ house, to capture the full flavor of a variegated “scene.” The film also acknowledges quite thoughtfully, without belaboring the point, the scary proto-feminist subtext underlying the comic sheen of all Austen’s novels: namely, the socially precarious position of women who were unlucky enough to lack both fortune and prospects. There’s a poignant moment, midway through the movie, in which Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent but plain young woman, still single at twenty-seven, with no money or connections, informs Elizabeth that she is going to marry a man whom Elizabeth finds unacceptable. “I cannot afford to be romantic,” she says. Cut to Elizabeth’s face, on which a sudden, sorrowful understanding dawns. The realization is that this could be Elizabeth herself, six or seven years hence: that the only reason Elizabeth can say “no” where Charlotte must say “yes” is that she is younger, prettier, and more hopeful. It’s only a moment: we know better. For if Elizabeth Bennet can’t afford to be romantic, then who can?

RATING: ** 3/4


Blogger lizzy said...

I am writing a research paper on Pride and Prejudice. Any advice?

10:50 AM  

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