Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Pride & Prejudice

I studied Jane Austen in school and firmly believe that Pride & Prejudice is and was her finest work. It isn’t as sentimental as 'Sense & Sensibility' as allegorical as 'Mansfield Park' or quite as funny as 'Emma'; but it always represents, for me, the classic piece from Austen, it is beautifully written and although light in tone it is not flimsy. It is a wonderful piece of literature. Enter a fresh director looking to make his film debut, a beautiful young actress looking to prove her talent and a television writer ready to make her mark. And what do you get? …a thing of beauty...
I say it unabashedly: Pride & Prejudice was my favourite live action film of 2005 surpassed only by Tim Burton’s animated Corpse Bride. As I’ve said in previous writing, I love the British, especially on film. When a film is filled with incessant British chatter their just seems to be a special panache about it [re Gosford Park, Howards End, Sense & Sensibility in recent times]. For any film with heavy dialogue it needs a talented cast to pull it off. The casting begins and ends with the Bennett’s. The Bennett parents are casted to perfection with Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland. A match made in cinematic heaven, but not for the obvious reasons. In the novel, Mrs. Bennett is a bit of neurotic fishwife who can sometimes be as vacuous as her teenage girls. Mr. Bennett a well mannered man of the books is sometimes annoyed at her relentless stupidity, but there are moments when we can see that they really are devoted to each other. That is something this casting is able to do perfectly. I did watch the 1995 miniseries version of Pride & Prejudice and this is one of the things that they could not capture from the novel. But in this 2005 experience we can believe that there was a time when there was no other attraction for Mr. Bennett. In a way their conversation at the beginning of the film sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Of course, though, the exemplary character of Pride & Prejudice is its heroine Elizabeth Bennett. I was always fond of Keira Knightley. She was never my favourite young star but she had shown what seemed like promise in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean. With Pride & Prejudice she was able to realise this potential. One of the wonderful things about this film is indeed its casting. Unlike the previous incarnations of the story, this Elizabeth Bennett was actually close to the age of the original character. In fact Keira was exactly the same 20 years as Ms. Elizabeth Bennett. Her somewhat unconvential good looks made her a realistic Eliza and her charming personality makes her endearing and likeable. She’s not some overstuffed English duck. Elizabeth’s sisters are also well casted. In terms of acting the best of them is Rosamund Pike as the older Jane Bennett but the others are not casted badly either Lydia Bennettt [an irrepressible Jena Malone], Mary Bennett [an almost silent Talulah Riley] and Catherine Bennett [an underused Carey Mulligan]. It’s hard enough getting two persons seem like real siblings and for the most part the quintet are honest representatives of sisterly love.
Continuing with the female power Judi Dench is cast to perfection as the formidable Lady Catherine De Bourgh. In her two scenes Judi Dench is as terrible and commanding as she was in Shakespeare in Love proving why she is the go to person for British women over 50. But it really is something that Keira Knightley is able to hold her own against this awesome woman. It’s not that I expected her to fail, but this IS Judi Dench and I had just figured that her Elizabeth would quiver under the weight of such a talent. But surprisingly, the scenes with Dench are some of Knightley’s strongest and it shows why she has such promise as an actress. She plays off her costars and it’s obvious that the chemistry between Dench and her takes both their performances to greater heights, which is altogether wonderful for the film.
The others, however, do not fare quite quite as well. Yes, Claudie Blakely as Elizabeth’s best friend does wonderfully as the plain Charlotte Lucas. Tom Hollander another cast member of Gosford Park is also well casted as Mr. Collins. Matthew McFayden as Fitzwilliam Darcy is both a blight and a delight as Darcy. I’m not sure what I expected his interpretation to be, and I figure it’s not that his interpretation was off – it’s just that he’s not a strong enough actor. There are some scenes where he’s surprisingly spot on.. There’s a scene – that’s really Keira’s, where she walks around the room with the young lady who plays Ms. Bingley. Their efforts are purported to be an attempt to find fault with Mr. Darcy. The scene is played wonderfully and despite not being the actual centre of it McFayden is good. But then there are some scenes like the famous dinner scene with Ms. Dench. McFayden seems little more than a prop piece. But it’s all good. He tries his best, and the few inconstancies do no not spoil the flow of the film.
One thing that comes dangerously close to spoiling the film though is the character of Mr. Bingley, played by Simon Woods. For some reason the character is played as something of an airhead. It does lead to some laughs in the first half, but at the end of the day the calm and unpretentious Rosamund Pike deserves someone way better, Mr. Bingley is supposed to represent the model of a conventional romantic hero a la Richard Burton whereas Darcy is a sort of antithesis a sort of a Paul Newman. Of course Matthew McFayden is no Newman, but he puts up a valiant effort. Bingley on the other did not particularly impress me.
I rather feel that Rupert Friend who played the roguish Mr. Wickham who in some scenes seems like a startling look a like to Orlando Bloom would have done a better job as Bingley. He has the sort of bland charm that we unearth from Bingley in the novel. But don’t feel that I’m trying to recreate the novel verbatim in the film. There are things excised from the novel for the film version. But the beauty of Pride & Prejudice is that it doesn’t feel truncated or incomplete.
There are two scenes in Pride & Prejudice that I absolutely love. In addition to the Judi Dench scenes mentioned above. There is a moment in the second half when Elizabeth receives a dreadful notice about her sister Lydia . She walks in and out of the room where her aunt and Uncle sit with Mr. Darcy. Unable to speak she is barely able to sputter the words out in tears. The second occurs towards the end. It’s a hot summer day and the house is lethargic. Jane has just sworn that she is over Mr. Bingley when a sister spies him coming to the house with that dreadful Mr. Darcy. The house flies into a flurry of quick cleaning to make themselves and the house presentable. It lasts less that a few minutes, but Ms. Bennet’s line Everybody act naturally is almost a theme for the film.
Pride & Prejudice is NOT a period piece of the usual type. In this period pieces the houses are not spotless, there are pigs in the houses, clothes hang on the line and are wet by the rain, the hems of our heroine is covered in mud and the cast really do act naturally. Don’t be a purist, and don’t stick to the book like some high priest. This film is wonderful. Approach it with a free mind and willing mind. I really don’t think you will be disappointed.



Rae Kasey said...

The scene in which Elizabeth gets the letter about Lydia was written by Emma Thompson. It's one of my favorites, too.

I also love when she's on the tire swing, and we see the seasons changing as she spins. Such a lovely touch.

anahita said...

this is quite possibly my favourite film ever. some of my favourite scenes are the proposals (both of elizabeths) the dancing scene at the bingley's ball with darcy and elizabeth and the scene where darcy helps lizzie into the carriage. just all round bless :) and I have to say, I loved matthew in this role - he just fitted darcy. and my girl keira was fabulous as always xxx

CrazyCris said...

As much as this version delighted me... I was still never convinced by either of the Bingleys or Darcy... sadly! :o(

But Bennetts (all 7 of them) were perfect!

Michael Parsons said...

One of my favourites from that year. The moment I fell in love with Knightley. Thought Donald Sutherland and Charlotte Lucas were also brilliant in their roles.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

I think I had the opposite reaction to yours in terms Keira Knightley --she's never been a favorite actress of mine, and then along came "Pride & Prejudice." She completely won me over with her great, energetic performance as Elizabeth Bennett. She made me feel like heel for ever thinking this remake was superfluous, and her chemistry with Matthew Macfadyen (a wonderful pick for Mark Darcy) was damn near smoking.