The Theory of Chaos

Friday, October 05, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Pride & Prejudice

Originally posted 11/22/05
Full review behind the jump

Pride & Prejudice

: Joe Wright
: Deborah Moggach, based on the novel by Jane Austen
: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
: Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Rosamund Pike, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Simon Woods, Tom Hollander, Dame Judi Dench, Jena Malone

Pride and Prejudice
is, primarily, a story about people who are desperate and fearful and awkward, but who express it in bursts of great joy and eloquence. They turn linguistic cartwheels about how incredibly pleasant everything is – how tasteful the decorating, how polite their hosts are, how all-around splendid the party’s going, and in the way phrases are clipped and eyes flash we find out how they really feel.

What makes it a comedy is that this grand public ritual erected to conceal unpleasant feelings and situations has a tendency to reveal people nakedly in all their clumsiness and immaturity. For all but two characters in this energetic adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous novel, there’s scarcely any question as to their true character, for us or anyone else.

You see, it’s an open secret that Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has five daughters and is desperate to see them safely married. Without a son, when Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) dies – which everyone agrees will be soon though he seems spry enough – they will be without property, and subject to the whims of his heir, cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander). Mr. Collins thinks very highly of himself, and plods through paragraphs of self-reference – perhaps convinced people will lack the endurance to resist his contention that he is actually a wise man of great passion. He picks the oldest and prettiest Bennet sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike) as an appropriate bride, but when hearing she’s already being wooed by the enthusiastic though slightly dim new neighbor Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), he just moves to the next sister, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), and decides she’ll do.

The only hang-up is, she won’t. Determined and independent, Elizabeth knows the world she lives in, how high the stakes are for an unmarried woman, but she refuses to surrender to unhappiness. We can tell she inherited a bemused eye for this world from Mr. Bennet, and when it won’t get him in too much trouble we see his delight in her insouciance. Bennet sits at the head of the table, tuning out whatever babble he can and reading his newspaper with the serene resignation that he has a small and finite number of them left to read. You might guess he has nothing left but devilishness to offer, but in one perfectly-executed scene we’ll see the emotional investment he’s made in this very special daughter he has, and Sutherland’s performance is his best in many, many years.

Elizabeth roams the world of the landed, concerned primarily for her sisters – she is both low-born and uncooperative, whereas they might overcome their birth with sufficient charm. In the course of her careful maneuvering she repeatedly crosses paths with Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), who at first seems merely dour but becomes increasingly dashing as the two progress from disliking each other to, through various misunderstandings and exhumed old wounds, genuinely hating each other. Well, one certainly hates, whether the other ever reaches that emotion is questionable. But we all know where this sort of thing ends up in stories like this.

There’s a cleanliness to Jane Austen’s storytelling that lends itself easily to adaptation. Despite the number of characters it’s easy to keep score, and yet there’s always room for unexpected connections, surprise discoveries about someone’s past, and inspired methods for settling moral debts. Not to mention the outsized personalities – Brenda Blethyn is a mother hen with her head cut off as the matriarch with a deadline, and Dame Judi Dench steams in briefly, battleship-like, as the very wealthy Lady Catherine de Bourg. The cavernous rooms of her house seem constructed specifically to make her voice boom more imperiously as she expresses her disgust with the Bennets’ poor circumstances. All with a smile, of course.

And as another in the long line of young British actresses making the costume piece rite of passage, Knightley is magnificent. The old expression about how a camera can love a performer is apt for her, and the filmmakers are generous in giving her moments to express her passions both quietly and at full volume. MacFadyen is an excellent match for her, and the British countryside performs smashingly as it usually does.

I think where filmmakers can go wrong with material like this is to get cinched up in the corset, so to speak. There’s so much to get right – the formal dances, those heavy costumes, the design of the houses that reflect each strata of wealth, right down to the peculiar gait of servants making announcements. And this material has a reputation, don’t you know, it’s a classic. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach, under the guidance of the British romance experts at Working Title Films, reach through those distractions to get to the guts of this timeless story. It’s about having only your wits to survive in a world where the deck is stacked against you, and we can all relate to that. And it’s about love, which makes fools of us all; and a good story like Pride and Prejudice can free us to laugh about it.


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