Sunday, November 13, 2005

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE - it'll do, I suppose

The story is familiar to most, but if not, here is the set up: Mr Bennet is a gentleman with a vulgar wife, no son, and hence no property to leave to his five daughters. The eldest daughter Jane is on the verge of engagement to the wealthy Mr. Bingley, when Bingley's proud best friend Mr. Darcy persuades him against such a poor match. But will Mr. Darcy be so "kind" to himself when he falls for Jane's younger sister, Lizzie?

I say that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a harmless and pretty film because, despite manifold failures and errors of judgement, the source material itself is so charming that, to the faithful Austen fan, there is a certain happiness in just seeing another run through. Any adaptation that keeps the famous witty repartee and chooses idyllic English country houses shot in perpetual sunshine will produce something that slides down as easily as a good up of tea. This is "heritage" cinema and as far as it goes, there is nothing wrong with that. Note also that on this point you should not be led astray by press banter from the director, Joe Wright, who claims to have "roughed up" Austen. Yes, the Bennets have geese and swine running through the back yard. But a little mud does not make this Dickens and while some characters do have sordid pasts this is all off screen. We are by no means in the realms of recent BBC adaptations of Dickens and Thackeray where all the dirt, grime, corruption and pollution is on screen. By contrast, everyone in this adaptation looks like an advert for The National Trust.

But when you look beyond the pretty gowns and carriage there is something very wrong with the mechanics of the thing. I think this is half casting and half scripting. Keira Knightley looks lovely as Lizzie Bennet and has the right sort of energy, but too often looks petulant rather than passionate. Much has been made of the fact that she is the same age as the fictional Lizzie Bennet but I, and it would appear much of England, prefers Jennifer Ehle's portrayal in the 1995 BBC adaptation. Matthew Matthew MacFadyen is similarly miscast as Mr. Darcy. He has none of the fearsome authority that would silence a ballroom ( a proposterous scene). Rosamund Pike is delightful as Jane Bennet but her Mr. Bingley is hopeless. Not that I think that this is fault of acting as much as of scripting. Poor Simon Woods is made to look a complete buffoon. Bingley is meant to be too trusting and too persuadable, but not an idiot. Against such a poor cast, it is no wonder that Tom Hollander stands out as the odious, obsequious Mr. Collins.

The other half of the problem is scripting. By this I mean that while it is not inconceivable that we should have a 2 hour PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, this is not it. In choosing what to slash and compress some wrong choices have been made. The plot strand that really suffers is Lizzie's infatuation with Mr. Wickham and her conviction that Darcy has done him wrong. I am convinced that Rupert Friend was only cast as Wickham because he looks vaguely like Orlando Bloom and he gets precious little screen time with Lizzie. As a result, we hardly understand why she should take against Darcy on his account. This undercuts the development of the relationship between Darcy and Lizzie - the very centre of the story.

Overall, then, a decent enough romp through familiar territory but hardly anything to recommend a second viewing. To be sure, it does not have the luxury of 6 hours playing time, but even in the shorter time-frame allowed more could have been made of the cast. Perhaps viewers unfamiliar with the iconic BBC adaptation will not hold this version up to that high benchmark and take this version on its own terms as a sweet, period drama. But ardent Austen fans, while thankful for any big-screen indulgence, will be disappointed.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was released in the UK in September and in Germany and Austria in October. It is released in the USA on the 23rd November and in France on the 28th November. A 10th anniversary DVD of the BBC production has also been released.

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