Cinema Signal:

The British Cinema Book
by Robert Murphy

. "Pride and Prejudice"

Director Joe Wright ("Charles II: The Power & the Passion," a 2003 miniseries) with the able assistance of screenwriter Deborah Moggach ("Final Demand," 2003 TV) has taken the classic tale of 18th century class conscious manners by Jane Austen ("Mansfield Park," "Emma") and a team of actors that can only be described as brilliant and made a romance into an adventure, a source of considerable humor, and lots of fun. Excellent pacing, consistent perfection of period detail in all production crafts, and plain good taste add to the richness of the mix.

It raises the question of misunderstanding in the realm of love and courtship at a time when customs were formal and subject to strict rules of conduct. It was also a time when the wealthy were held in awe, envied breathlessly, and held an unbalanced amount of social power. For a young woman to land a man who was part of that strata would be enough to rescue an entire family from poverty. Among the Bennet sisters, the two eldest are the likely candidates to arouse such affection.

Doting father (Donald Sutherland) retains his perspective on such prospects even as obsessed mother (Brenda Blethyn) carries on with barely restrained designs on her two beautiful eldest daughters capturing the hearts of wealthy handsome men. Their country estate is agog with anticipation at the prospect of the coming dance, especially in light of the fact that wealthy bachelors Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy are taking up residence in a nearby mansion. Their attendance at the dance will be accompanied by a platoon of military officers and likely suitors, as well.

The inevitable meeting between the openly enthusiastic Bingley and the shy, beautiful eldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) is love at first sight. The attraction between the much more contained and rather snobbish Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) and 2nd in line daughter Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, "King Arthur"), on the other hand, is mutual rejection-on-sight. Yeah, sure.

The ensuing courtships revolve around a great deal of snobbery and misunderstanding, but never irretrievably so and never crude. Taste abides. But dark clouds hover. Elizabeth meets the handsome officer Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), who tells her a tale of unfair rejection by Mr. Darcy after having been raised with him since boyhood, an aspect of Darcy that casts him in a very questionable moral light. Even worse, though, is at hand.

Mr. Darcy, while maintaining stoic disregard for the comely neighbor who clearly impassions his mind when she steps into his company, mistakes sister Jane's relatively sober conduct when with Darcy's outgoing, good-natured brother Bingley for disinterest. The consequence is that he rushes Bingley away in order to protect him from a grave mistake, a development that stuns the Bennett clan and turns doubt into revulsion in Elizabeth for the man she hasn't stopped thinking about.

As for Keira Knightley who plays her, she's slight, she's slender -- a mere wisp of a girl in those long period garments. Yet, her poise and power of presence is of such a magnitude it makes you wonder if there's another actress who can so command the screen? When she's not on it, I yearn for her return. Partly for her intoxicating beauty and to enjoy how cinematographer Roman Osin's light takes advantage of its nuances; but also because it's on her emotions and the countenance that so animatedly expresses them that the story resides. She's the drama and punch of it, the soulful, emotional core.

Macfadyen is exemplary in his steady denial of the fire raging in his breast for this woman. He measures up nicely to his co-star in the subtleties of expression and thereby assists in the measured unfolding of the relationship.

Brenda Blethyn's gadabout, fixated, desperate mother of a female-filled household never strays outside concerns we can relate to and sypathize with. Sutherland's easygoing temperament is also steady, and a comforting contrast as a man whose sound judgement completely overrides temptations of greed or any other crass enticement.

The girls of the household are ebbulient, supportive, and true to the pangs of excitement regarding men, just as one might expect from the age and gender. Their continual animation adds measurably to the pace and balance of the piece and to the consistent effectiveness of a superb, perfectly cast ensemble.

All of which contributes to explaining why a filmgoer who generally disdains films over 100 minutes in length had no particular desire for this 127 minutes to end. The story of romance in lush settings sounds, on the page, like the province of girlie romantics. But the conceptual balance in the writing and execution and brilliant staging avoids the common trap of sentimentality. The most ravishing element here is the taste that went into it. This uncommon film of romance demonstrates what's possible in concentrating the essence of drama and fun from a classic novel. Jane Austen hasn't been in such good hands since Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack Album


The DVD of the 1996 version of "Pride and Prejudice"
with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle

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(sample frames from movies photographed
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Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy
Birthrights and class no match for love.
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