by Mel Valentin
First published almost two hundred years ago, Jane Austen's prototypical romantic comedy, "Pride & Prejudice" has been adapted multiple times for other media, mostly for British television. "Pride & Prejudice" was last adapted as a theatrical feature in 1940, with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in the lead roles of Darcy and Elizabeth. The 1995 BBC adaptation, however, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Darcy and Elizabeth, respectively, has become a favorite of Austen's multi-generational fans. That fact alone made director Joe Wright's ("Charles II: The Power and the Passion," known in the United States as "The Last King") task a difficult, complex one, especially given the limited running time that affects the number of characters and subplots that can be included. That he mostly succeeds is a credit to the nimble, streamlined screenplay by Deborah Moggach, the credible central performances, the production design (gritty for a period piece), and Wright's filmmaking style that's not unexpectedly pictorial given the period trappings, but surprisingly mobile for a dialogue-driven film.Elizabeth "Lizzie" Bennet (Keira Knightley), the second oldest daughter of five in the Bennet household, is both the brightest and the most headstrong. The other Bennet sisters include her older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike), and, in order of importance and screen time, Lydia (Jena Malone), Kitty (Carey Mulligan), and Mary (Talulah Riley). As a group, the sisters are boisterous, somewhat self-centered, and, given their relative ages, boy-crazy, with Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland), the family patriarch, almost powerless to contain or channel their youthful exuberance. Lydia and Kitty are especially looking forward to the arrival of the local militia in their town. For them, and other local girls, the militia represents a source of eligible bachelors. Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has larger ambitions for her daughters (or at least, her older daughters), a new, wealthy bachelor, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods).
"Romantic comedy and Jane Austen fans will find much to like here."
At a public dance, Bingley arrives with his vain, snobbish sister, Caroline (Kelly Reilly) and a family friend, Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). Bingley becomes instantly attracted to Jane, while Caroline looks on with barely veiled disapproval. Mr. Darcy, for his part, is aloof, distant, and uncomfortable in social situations. Darcy is also tall, dark, and wealthy, making his a suitable target for the local women searching for a husband. Lizzie's first encounter with Darcy goes badly, with Lizzie overhearing Darcy insult her appearance to Bingley (she smartly throws the comment back at him). Thus begins mutual antipathy, antipathy that, of course, hides mutual attraction.
Before, however, Lizzie and Darcy act on that attraction (if they do at all), a series of complications and reversals, beginning with the appearance of another suitor for Lizzie's hand, heartbreak for one sister, the scandalous engagement of another, and family opposition (his, not hers), threatens to unravel whatever progress Lizzie and Darcy have made toward mutual understanding. Darcy, for his part, reveals his deep-seated prejudices when he informs Lizzie of his conflicted feelings for her. Lizzie reacts pridefully. But as a prototypical romantic comedy, the obstacles can be overcome, at least where "true love" can be found (a radical notion in Regency England, where marriages were brokered and romantic love rarely played a role in marriage).
Given the constraints of a two-hour running time (more or less), Pride & Prejudice suffers, or appears to suffer, from the same problems novel-to-film adaptations often have: the compression of storylines or subplots (or their elimination), and secondary characters who are given little screen time. The loss of screen time for favorite characters might leave some fans of Austen's novel unhappy, but viewers unfamiliar or only tangentially familiar will have to judge Pride and Prejudice on its own.
Wright's adaptation isn't without its faults, primarily in his unrestrained use of music to underline key emotional moments, or in the indulgence of certain romantic clichés that, despite their likely presence in Austen's novel, should have been either discarded or minimized (a character walking across a meadow with the sun at his back is one egregious example, as is the final, superfluous scene that serves only to reiterate or repeat the dramatic content of a previous scene). Still, Wright deserves credit for his attention to period detail, including the production design (the Bennet home looks lived in, and the costumes, as well as a directing style that emphasizes mobile camerawork over the static, conventional shots audiences have come to expect from period pieces, especially dialogue-heavy period pieces. In the ballroom scenes, Wright uses a Steadicam or a dolly to track different characters as they move across the hall, and in one shot, literalizes the first stirrings of attraction between Lizzie and Darcy.Performance wise, Keira Knightly makes for a credible 18th-century heroine, as does Matthew MacFadyen as the brooding, Heathcliff-like Mr. Darcy (it's not surprisingly to learn that MacFadyen has appeared in a production of "Wuthering Heights" (but not as the central character, Heathcliff). Donald Sutherland has far less to do, although he conveys Mr. Bennet's continual befuddlement (which hides an unexpected perceptiveness) with relative ease. Brenda Blethyn fares less well, playing the Mrs. Bennet character broadly (typical for Blethyn's performances). To be fair, the Mrs. Bennet character is broadly written, and only partially sympathetic, but an understated performance would have still been preferable.
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originally posted: 11/11/05 14:21:30