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Friday, 23 November 2007

Pride & Prejudice (2005) A film review by Joel Meares - Copyright © 2005 Filmcritic.com

English students of the world rejoice – another reason not to read Jane Austen. Joe Wright’s latest incarnation of Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice is a mostly blissful time-traveling bus tour through a giggly and gorgeous English countryside. To your left note the lovely ladies Bennet, all sideways glances, blushing cheeks and innuendo. To your right, lenses at the ready for the dapper, tall, dark, and handsome objects of their affection, Darcy, Bingley, and Wickham! Swoon… Watch them as they play and woo, mismanage and miscarry, repress and reveal. This flighty matrimonial preamble is the pleasure of Wright’s adaptation, briskly played in balls and manors. When at its playful best, it dances lightly with humor and delight. However, the film’s occasional missteps, rhythm-less moves into the shadows of darker and more serious emotional territory, threaten to sink rather than anchor Wright’s film with any of the depth they intend to provide.

For those who are unaware of Austen’s novel (it might be helpful to consider that The Lion King is to Hamlet as Bridget Jones’ Diary is to Pride & Prejudice), Pride & Prejudice is the story of the Bennet sisters, and particularly, second eldest child Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). These desperate housewives-to-be are in dire pursuit of a man. For the younger girls, and Elizabeth’s squawking mother (a superbly erratic Brenda Blethyn), a man’s greatest endowment is his wallet. However, for Elizabeth and oldest sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) love is the only currency in which they wish to deal. Convenient then that the objects of their affections, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) for Jane, and the infamously standoffish Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) for Elizabeth, are moneyed up to the kilt when they ride into town to stir trouble and steal hearts. Elizabeth’s very cinematic blindness to Darcy’s very British advance is the centerpiece of both novel and film, with all suspense drawn from the “will they or won’t they” dilemma.

The film opens gloriously and sails solidly for sometime thereafter, compelled by a freshness in its handling of the period. The camera is relaxed but never stagnant. An early shot following Elizabeth through the Bennet household (echoed later at a dance) has an Altman-esque charm, paying mild attention to sisterly passers-by, eavesdropping, before moving on and regaining focus. The dialogue is snappy (“Believe me, men are either eaten up with arrogance or stupidity”) and full of the fruity and literary language one would expect from an Austen adaptation. As if we were on tour, Wright’s schedule is full, Austen’s agenda dictates that it must be, and in its first half, Pride & Prejudice delights in entertaining us at balls, in fields, in parlors and giggling with teenage girls under bed sheets. The Bennets are charming company, Jena Malone and Carey Mulligan as the youngest sisters offer an amazing energy to the production as a pair of mawkish desperados. Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet delivers a fine performance, and is given the film’s best line and most poignant moment seconds before the credits roll.

However, when Wright moves away from the Bennet household Pride & Prejudice loses much of its charm and flow. The tour becomes plodding as Elizabeth takes center stage and we are dragged with her to various uninspiring locations across England in a doggedly inevitable march to Darcy. Part of the flaw, dare I say it, is a structural problem inherited from the novel. Darcy and Elizabeth are never given the opportunity to fall in love, so that when their confessions come (and it is not giving much away to say that they do), one wonders when they possibly had the time or inclination to fall for each other so deeply. The only evidence Wright offers is in the unspoken chemistry between his leads, MacFadyen and Knightley, at times almost scorching enough to justify their inevitable union. This pause in the film, away from the Bennet home, pulls from under it the emotional investment achieved in its earlier stages. And unfortunately, the casting of Knightley as the iconic Elizabeth does not help.

Knightley is an intelligent and photogenic actor and for much of the film, particularly when lit by the blue hues of dawn, is a more than adequate protagonist. Yet when the rain comes, the film delves deeper, and more than a wry smile is required, Knightley is lacking. Her shrill hurt and played realization ring false and only confirm the growing feeling that Pride & Prejudice is a fairly superficial exercise. Elizabeth Bennet is a complex character, a contradiction between youth, femininity, wisdom and sass, and Knightley’s admirable attempt does Austen’s character only infrequent justice.

Joe Wright’s adaptation is diligent, faithful, sweeping, full of witty retorts, generally well cast, and yet emotionally unpersuasive. The audience is offered a glance through the looking glass into the lives of the Bennets and their dark and handsome pursuits, but never are we allowed off the bus to fully engage. Sumptuous and diverting, this Pride & Prejudice is delightful, but only hints at being anything more.

http://www.filmcritic.com/misc/emporium.nsf/reviews/Pride-and-Prejudice-(2005)

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