17 December 2005

current cinema: Pride & Prejudice

this review may also appear in the wissahickon

starring: Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Matthew MacFadyen, and Donald Sutherland
written by: Deborah Moggach, from the novel by Jane Austen
directed by: Joe Wright
PG, 127 min, 2005, UK

We all know the story behind Pride & Prejudice[1], as we all had to read the novel in literature class back in our formative years[2], so it should come as no surprise to learn that the five Bennet sisters are focused solely on finding a husband. They are thrown into a tizzy when handsome and wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) shows up with the dour Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). The sisters cannot stand Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) chief of all, be he wins them over in the end and they fall in love.

If IMDB.com is right and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has been adapted nine previous times for either film or television, then do we really need a tenth? Is it necessary to come up with a nice, even number for the sake of completeness, or do the good folks at Working Title Films really think they can add a fresh approach to this classic? Attempt number eight was just two years ago in a forgettable version that included scenes in Las Vegas, and number nine was last year in Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood version, so perhaps the feeling was that the story could benefit from a return to form. But if that is the case, why not just hype the DVD release of what many consider to be the definitive version: the 1995 BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy? At least, this is what I'm thinking as I'm waiting for the film to start. I'm also wondering why there couldn't be a late showing of The Squid and the Whale, but I digress.

This being a British period drama, the film has a large cast of supporting characters who provide the story's ballast and give an air of authenticity to the production. Case in point, Dame Judi Dench turns up as Lady Catherine de Bourg, which shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone, because when doing a British period drama, you're going to have your film viewed as a second-class citizen if you can't get Judi Dench. Otherwise, why even bother? I always get the feeling watching these things that part of the reason the film was made was to provide work for a small army of struggling actors, almost as if period dramas existed solely as a British arts initiative similar to the American theatre programs during the Great Depression.

So with that in mind, it is certainly odd to see Donald Sutherland[3] playing Mr. Bennet and Jena Malone as Lydia Bennet, but perhaps that serves as a half-hearted attempt to draw in American audiences. In the end, though, Sutherland gives the best performance of the film. Mr. Bennet is in many ways an unfortunate man. He is not a rich man by any stretch of the imagination and has a small house filled with a wife and five daughters he loves dearly, but as young girls are wont to do, there is a great deal of giggling and screaming and such. The poor man must be exhausted. Sutherland plays him with a weary grace that reminds us of just the type of performances he used to give on a regular basis[4]. In a very strange film for it to occur, we are reminded just how cool he is.

But Pride & Prejudice is better than you'd expect it to be for one very specific reason: director Joe Wright. Rather than use the normal method of filming a period drama where you put the camera on a tripod and occasionally throw in a pan or tilt, Wright (with a great deal of credit going to cinematographer Roman Osin and editor Paul Tothill) approaches it as he would an indie drama. Primarily employing a steadicam, he uses the moving camera to bring the film to life. Normally a static genre, the infusion of a strong visual style gives it a new spin without detracting in any way from the story. And it's rarely even things an average audience member would notice. He doesn't speed up the film stock or spin the camera around or give us strange angles or any of the other flashy techniques that can occasionally feel forced, it is simply a filmmaker coming at the story with great respect, but a completely different worldview. It is an inspired decision, as it updates and modernizes a classic while seeming to be the farthest thing from the production's mind.

[1] The filmmakers, in an attempt to be confusing, have replace the "and" with an ampersand. So here's what I shall do: in talking about the film I will use the ampersand, but will revert to the "and" in discussing the novel.

[2] I did not read the novel, but did manage to produce a very fine paper on it based on the small part I did read. I got the general plot from some literature majors.

[3] To be fair, he is Canadian, which is close.

[4] Besides MASH (1970), Ordinary People (1980), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Animal House (1978) he starred in Fellini's Il Casanova di Federico Fellini (1976).


johanna said...

nice review.

Rachel said...

wonderful...just wonderful