***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B-
starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland
screenplay by Deborah Moggach
directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw There's fat to be trimmed from Joe Wright's noble go at Jane Austen's adapted-to-death Pride and Prejudice, which clocks in at a flabby 127 minutes (yet still seems somehow rushed at its conclusion), but when it works, it does for Austen what Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet did for Shakespeare: it makes the trials of these iconic literary figures feel immediate and sensible--and it does so with a screenplay (by Deborah Moggach) that understands what parts of the text are timeless and what parts are not. This isn't to say that this Pride & Prejudice is more post-modern than the source, but that Wright understands where to prompt top-billed Keira Knightley to laugh sardonically and thus crafts an illusion of an interior life for her Elizabeth Bennet beyond the usual impression of adolescent cattiness. Knightley may very well be headed for an Oscar nomination for what has become the chick-Hamlet (Austen being the crucible through which young British actors put themselves in preparation for, I guess, Domino and sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean), but I'm thinking if she gets one, she owes at least half of it to Wright for the amount of time he put into highlighting her script.
It's all about marriage, naturally, with ridiculous--loathsome, almost--Mother Bennet (Brenda Blethyn, in full freak-out mode) doing her best to slough off her five unmarried daughters on the unsuspecting mid-level aristocracy summering in their sleepy community. (Wright makes a joke of her in one scene as she runs along hysterically with a gaggle of geese her mute doppelgängers--it's funny, but it's mean.) The prettiest of her offspring is the eldest, Jane (Rosamund Pike); the smartest, Elizabeth (Knightley); and the flightiest, Lydia (Jena Malone), who in the Austen karmic universe has the worst marriage--one that Wright, in another dubious moment unexamined, sort of suggests is physically abusive in addition to morally questionable. Truth is, Wright appears to delight in adding little barbs at the expense of his less savoury characters--a tactic that renders the film easier to like and you a slightly more unpleasant person for believing that. (This covers Dame Judi Dench's perfunctory cameo as the distaff Anthony Hopkins.) No matter, as the "Austenticity" of the piece demands that Jane end up with her equally vacuous soul mate (Simon Woods) and Elizabeth discover that beneath the icy exterior of our Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) beats the heart of Colin Firth.
The centre of the film is arguably DP Roman Osin's work. The term "breathtaking" is overused--people should save it to describe Osin's work in this film, which evokes paintings of the British countryside by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable from around roughly the same period as when Austen was writing. As art eventually becomes the only means through which we gain access to a given era, it makes a great deal of sense that Pride & Prejudice should resemble a Romanticist watercolour, all of light and fog and shadow. It's a gorgeous picture to look at, and the moments where Wright indulges in a bit of impressionism himself (a scene shot from a slowly revolving swing that navigates the passage of months; another as Elizabeth stares at herself in a mirror as the many secrets of the film are left on her windowsill) are the ones that really ping off the possibilities of a genuine post-modern treatment rather than this coy one. Moreover, the minor performances are uniformly good (special nods to Donald Sutherland's Mr. Bennet and Tom Hollander as the insufferable Mr. Collins), Dario Marianelli's score is well-used and period-compatible (he's been here before, scoring Julian Temple's Wordsworth/Coleridge flick Pandaemonium), and Knightley is naturally vibrant in exactly the way that Reese Witherspoon was not in Vanity Fair. But for a little superfluous nastiness and the desperate need to shave another fifteen minutes or so off the runtime, Pride & Prejudice would actually deserve the full measure of the praise it's going to get. Counting my blessings that it actually deserves some. Originally published: November 23, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Universal/Focus Features presents Pride & Prejudice on DVD in a smashing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. A touch of 'Universal jaundice' is evident and edge-enhancement crops up now and again, but I'm honestly grasping at straws to find fault with the presentation. Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is fine and even quite spacious during Lizzie and Darcy's meet-cute at the opening cotillion; Dario Marianelli's score takes every opportunity to swell in the subwoofer. On another track, director Joe Wright offers a feature-length commentary, coming off a lot like the film's Mr. Darcy in the process. "Not well shot, this section, I don't think," he says early on, setting a dryly self-deprecating tone that balances out his frequently pretentious digressions. We become more versed in production minutiae from Wright's recapitulation of his Method approach to Austen than we do through a quartet of featurettes, three of which were prepared for the British DVD release.
"A Bennet Family Portrait" (6 mins.) is the standard plot synopsis made up of soundbites, albeit one occasionally interrupted by Austen hagiography. Still, when Donald Sutherland, one of our most soulful actors, says, "I loved being Mr. Bennett," it's a piercing reminder of what a missed opportunity the latter half of his career has been. "Jane Austen: Ahead of Her Time" (8 mins.) continues the Austen love-in, citing Clueless and Bridget Jones's Diary as proof of the author's enduring influence when they just as soundly demonstrate Hollywood's lack of original ideas. As an overview of Austen's life and bibliography, though, it does the trick. The inexplicably-titled "Behind the Scenes at the Ball" (6 mins.) is actually a goulash of stray observations from the cast about their co-stars; I presume the objective behind showing that tears were shed as the shoot wound down was to wring a few from the viewer. Lastly, an HBO First Look special, "Pride & Prejudice: A Classic in the Making" (13 mins.), repurposes all of the B-roll we've just seen, binding it together with insipid voiceover from an uncredited narrator. Rounding out the disc, trailers for On a Clear Day, Prime, "Medium", and Brokeback Mountain that cue up on startup. Originally published: March 14, 2006.