Pride & Prejudice
directed by Joe Wright
(Working Title, 2005)

Director Joe Wright challenges every preconception with this stunning, stylish adaptation of Jane Austen's much-loved novel of manners. He's shifted the action back to 1797, when Austen published her first draft -- then known as First Impressions. I get the strong feeling that relocating the drama to the late Georgian period liberated Wright from the shackles of the 1813 Regency setting. Indeed, he so successfully distances himself from earlier versions (including the BBC's radical 1995 dramatisation) that some of his Derbyshire settings would befit any Bronte adaptation.

Longbourn becomes positively Hardyesque -- a bucolic, rambling, frayed-at-the-edges farm where pigs roam free through the Bennet household and mud stains the doorstep. The emphasis is on the human, the pastoral, the nittygritty of life for the Bennets and the lives they touch -- and acclaimed writer Deborah Moggach's delicious screenplay (with its direct, unfussy language) injects the drama with humour and humanity. Witness the hilarious scene where Mrs. Bennet is inelegantly sprawled out on her chair with a plate of food resting on her stomach, her shoes and hems filthy with mud. Her daughters are similarly immodest, too. Darcy and Bingley's arrival is announced, and, within one whirlwind minute, the entire setting is transformed to a picture of ladylike elegance; ladies sewing ribbons, attending to their embroidery or enriching their mind with a book. Inspired!

Successful too are the "in-the-thick-of-it," close-up filming techniques, taking you right to the heart of the action. The dance scenes at Meryton assembly rooms are a beautiful riot of lively music and dance, noisy chatter and joie de vivre -- it's a totally starch-free zone!

Nature, landscape and setting are essential characters in the film -- from the beautifully tranquil, early dawn panorama of the opening scene (and its sounds of nature awakening), to the rural parishes, towns and residences of the main protagonists -- the location team have done a first-rate job, finding properties as varied as Groombridge Place in Sussex, Burghley House in Lincolnshire and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. The landscapes of Derbyshire are lovingly portrayed, and the closing Hertfordshire scenes, filmed in the half-light of an early autumn dawn, are exquisitely executed and central to this magical adaptation's denouement.

Casting is inspired. Matthew MacFadyen has created a Darcy of some depth -- gone are many of the snobbish elements in his character. This is a serious young man of 25 struggling to come to terms with his legacy and role in society, and driven mad by his "irrational" attraction to Lizzie -- which of course, goes against all his "better judgement." Keira Knightley has created a Lizzie who is vibrant, full of mischief and laughter. The emphasis is pretty much "full-on" Lizzie/Darcy, and a good deal of the novel is condensed/minimized to allow you to feel the full impact of their growing misunderstanding and gradual rapprochement. You quickly become enthralled by their developing relationship and their maddening attraction to each other. There's great chemistry between the two, and Darcy surprisingly casts many social proprieties aside, barging through doors unannounced, and thinly disguising his attempts to control his feelings for Lizzie. As with other adaptations of the period, sexual undercurrents are much in evidence (especially during the first, rain-sodden proposal scene, and the early-dawn wanderings of a tormented Darcy), but it's a definitely a case of "less is more" in the way the passion is conveyed.

Charles Bingley becomes a charming, slightly oafish figure, sporting a magnificent quiff. His delight when the object of his desire Jane (Rosamund Pike) has the misfortune of being taken ill at his home, Netherfield, resulting in a stay of several days, is deliciously childlike. Wickham becomes a caddish, silver-tongued militiaman with resplendent ponytail. Brenda Blethyn is utterly convincing as Mrs. Bennet -- an excitable woman who still clearly loves life and fun, and is in her element at a ball, or in the company of friends. She drives her husband and her daughters mad with her immodesty (evidently inherited by errant daughter Lydia!), but she is above all human. Donald Sutherland plays Mr. Bennet with an astonishing degree of compassion, and reduced me to tears with his emotional portrayal of his humility on learning that another man saved his family's reputation and honour at a time when immoral behaviour in just one daughter would ruin the prospects of an entire family.

On the face of it, this is a simple love story -- Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are magnetically attracted to each other despite class differences. They're two people who get it wrong about each other, themselves and the people around them until, once the truth of events begins to dawn, they learn humility and self-knowledge, and ultimately find happiness. But there is so much else going on. English society of the day dictated that a woman HAD to marry well, and Mrs. Bennet's hilarious attempts to marry off her daughters to the most eligible bachelors in her neighbourhood are not entirely risible. Charlotte Lucas, having accepted clergyman Mr. Collins' marriage proposal after her best friend Lizzie has rejected him, challenges our understanding of her predicament when she implores Lizzie not to judge her for taking on such a man. At 27, a spinster dependent on her parents, even marriage to such a repulsive man is the better option for Charlotte, freeing her up to manage her own household and have control of her affairs -- and her husband's, as she cunningly arranges his schedule in such ways that keep him out of her sight for hours on end!!

This is an "unbuttoned," thoroughly fresh look at Pride & Prejudice. The ladies, of course, still "take a refreshing turn about the room," and revealing decolletages are as much in evidence as ever. The real star of the show, however, is the wonderful mind and wit of Jane Austen, and this film has prompted me to reach for my copy of the novel and devour it anew. This is a beautiful adaptation of one of the loveliest novels ever written in the English language.

by Debbie Koritsas
24 September 2005

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