Monday, February 7, 2011

Years Divorced From The Novel, I Enjoy The 2005 Version Of Pride And Prejudice!

The Good: Decent characters, Generally good plot, Some acting, Scenery
The Bad: Pacing issues, Chemistry problems
The Basics: Keira Knightly does a fair job as Elizabeth Bennet in an adaptation of Pride And Prejudice where Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy steals the show.

Lately, there has been a lot of time management issues between my loving wife and I. As usual, I clamor for more time to review and she continues to actually want me around, which still surprises me more than it ought to as our two year anniversary of marriage looms up on us. What it has most assuredly meant is that I spend quite a bit of time compromising. She wants to go out, I want to stay in, so we go out to the casino for a night. She wants to watch something new, I want to watch something from our permanent library, so we compromise and we watch something new (in the interest of full disclosure, last week, that compromise did work in my favor as I got in The Social Network - reviewed here! - for my permanent collection and she watched that with me). The latest of such adventures in compromise was that tonight, she left me home to work while she went out . . . and I got to write about Pride And Prejudice, the last film she had me watch that was new to me!

It has been years since I last read Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice and so this is a very pure review of the 2005 film Pride And Prejudice and not a comparison of the book and film. That said, the basic verdict was that I enjoyed the film, which is saying something for a film with Keira Knightley as the lead. I think the only film I have truly enjoyed that she has headlined was Love Actually. But, with Pride And Prejudice, I fear I might have to reconsider her some because she was not bad as Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet is the principle protagonist of Pride And Prejudice, so the role is important and Knightley does all right with the role, for a change not making me think she is just filling the niche that Winona Ryder once filled.

It the sprawling estates of England in the 19th Century, the Bennets live with just enough to get by to have hired help and social clothes. But Mr. Bennet is getting on and he has five daughters and a wife to provide for, so he begins to consider what it will mean to marry them off. To that end, the Bennets go to a ball where Charles Bingley is being presented to the locals. Charles takes an immediate shine to Jane, while her sister Elizabeth finds herself put off by Bingley's taciturn friend, Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth has the rather liberal notion that marrying for love is more important than marrying for money and she is content to wait for true love to find her.

She knows that love is not in the form of her cousin, Mr. Collins, who is set to inherit the Bennet estate when Mr. Bennet dies. Elizabeth rejects Collins and has a passing fancy for the soldier, Lieutenant Wickham. Wickham shares Elizabeth's disdain for Darcy, but in learning why, Elizabeth comes to have a new respect for the wealthy Mr. Darcy. As Collins marries her best friend and Jane and Bingley flirt with a relationship, Elizabeth uncovers the truths about the socially awkward Mr. Darcy.

The fundamental problem with this version of Pride And Prejudice is that there is no real chemistry on screen between the two protagonists. Jane Austen's story follows the 19th Century paradigm for British literature, wherein the protagonist is given a romantic choice that is initially disturbing, until she encounters potential romantic interest #2 and then realizes #1 wasn't so bad. While having initially dismal chemistry works for Elizabeth and Darcy, unfortunately Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen have absolutely no real onscreen chemistry and the result is that they are hard to root for in the key moments of the film when their feelings do begin to blossom. Director Joe Wright is faced with an impossible task in making a dry set of character types set in a particularly dry period of social convention and because the two main leads - while fine on their own - have no spark between them for the times they are moving toward being together, Pride And Prejudice has a little hiccup.

That said, it is hardly an insurmountable hiccup and this cinematic rendition of Pride And Prejudice is surprisingly good. The costumes are amazing and Wright makes excellent use of the setting with beautiful presentations of England's moors and heaths and the film looks absolutely beautiful. In fact, there are moments the plot and momentum take a break in order to showcase the cinematography, but for the most part, Pride And Prejudice works wonderfully on a visual level.

The characters are archetypes, but when one considers that works like Pride And Prejudice pioneered that archetype, it becomes forgivable for the film to have characters speak their themes and have a movie which is a thinly veiled issue piece. The issue in Pride And Prejudice is largely the debate between human emotions and social conventions with the Bennets illustrating how love triumphs over social structure, to an extent. Pride And Prejudice is smart enough not to be entirely monolithic. So while social conventions keep the true love of Jane and Charles apart for an annoyingly long time, love does not solve all problems. When Lydia runs off with Wickham, it is only Darcy's vast fortune that saves the Bennets from social disgrace. But largely, Elizabeth's point on the virtues of love is well born throughout the film.

What separates this rather mainstream period film from other renditions of Pride And Prejudice is arguably the strength of the cast. Donald Sutherland lends an instant respectability to the production which is otherwise relying heavily on young talent - Knightley and the underused Jena Malone (who pops in as Lydia periodically) - and unknowns (at least to U.S. audiences) in the form of Matthew Macfadyen (Darcy) and Simon Woods (Bingley). While Dame Judy Dench is in the movie, her appearance is so late in it that most of the audience will have made up their mind about the quality of the production by that time.

Keira Knightley does a stupendous job as Elizabeth. For the first time in many, many films that she has appeared in, one does not feel like she is either treading in the wheel ruts of Winona Ryder, nor simply trying to capitalize on her elfin good looks. No, here she plays delighted off Rosamund Pike and sharp-tongued off Macfadyen. Her strength in the scenes where she rejects Mr. Collins illustrates more range than she is given in any other film I have seen her in. She is able to bring a playful quality to the scenes that require Elizabeth to be girlish and a force of will to the scenes where she has forced social interactions and Knightley delivers the full spectrum expertly.

It is Matthew Macfadyen, however, who steals every scene he is in and his ability to play standoffish is great. He is appropriately stiff and he has a decidedly regal demeanor which characterizes Darcy quite well. His performance was enough to make me want to find what other works he had been in so I could determine if this was a fluke performance or if he is just a vastly underutilized talent in cinema today.

On DVD, Pride & Prejudice includes four featurettes and a commentary track. The four featurettes focus mostly on the making of the film as well as translating the Jane Austen novel into the film. The featurettes and commentary track are pretty much the industry standards and they are pretty good.

Ultimately, Pride And Prejudice is a wonderful period drama that is a little slow, but has characters and witty dialogue smart enough to want to trudge through the slow times with. For those looking for a wonderful way to kill an evening and a good way to get into the classics - without picking up an actual book - this is good for that was well.

For other period pieces, please check out my reviews of:
Schindler's List
The Piano


For other film reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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