Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Perhaps the mot enduring film genre is the romance story. When you look back at the great movies of this type of all times films like Casablanca, Love Story and Rebecca have to make the list. Although often delegated to being ‘chick flicks’ there is usually enough drama that the men in the audience will contently watch. In recent years this genre has largely been replaced by the romantic comedy. Here there is a slap stick approach to romance that while it has its place is not really the same. With the latest in a long line of versions Jane Austin’s Pride & Prejudice gets the old school treatment. The story revolves around the Bennett family. The Father (Donald Sutherland) is straddled with five daughters of marriageable age; eldest Jane (Rosamund Pike), twenty year old Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), book worm Mary (Talulah Riley), seventeen year old Kitty (Carey Mulligan) and the youngest Lydia (Jena Malone). The mother (Brenda Blethyn) is deeply concerned with so many unmarried daughters afoot. If they can’t marry them off soon the family will be ruined. Mr. Bennett has a pending legacy that is only paid if he has a male heir. Excitement in the town greatly increases upon the arrival of a single man of some considerable means, Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). The appearance of a fresh prospect on the scene immediately gets Mrs. Bennett plotting to reduce the number of girls in the house by one. Even though Mr. Darcy has a reputation as an agreeable sort he has a distain for the socially lower people of the community. When a dance with Elizabeth is suggested he declines stating bluntly "she is not handsome enough to tempt me." Naturally, this is mortifying to young Elizabeth. Hint: it also sets up the title. To complicate things further another new neighbor moves in, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). Mrs. Bennett sees this as another path to marrying off a daughter. Then there is Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), a clergyman related to Mr. Bennett. His patron is the noblewoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench), who is the aunt of Mr. Collins. She suggests to Collins that he needs to find a wife. If Mr. and Mrs. Bennett marry at least one daughter and produce a male heir upon the death of Mr. Bennett everything goes to Collins and women folk are out on the streets. Collins spoils one of Mrs. Bennett’s plots when he marries Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte (Claudie Blakley).
There is more plotting and conniving going on here that it makes most political thrillers seem tame. If you think the average movie spy plays people wait to you see these people. In order to understand these characters and truly enjoy this movie you have to forget our modern sensibilities and allow yourself to be swept up in the caste system of 18th century England. This was a time when the status and rank of your birth all but controlled your future. For a young woman it was possible to increase your own status and that of your family by marrying upward. That is of course if you could find a man willing to marry beneath his station. While this was a very male dominated society it was usually the women that pulled the strings. Young girls are taught from birth how to appeal to men. They had to become adept at reading the character of a man to avoid making a bad match. Elizabeth never managed to master this trait, her actions dictated more by her heart and her own pride. In contrast it is the prejudice of Mr. Darcy that blinds him to Elizabeth. Both pride and prejudice stand in the way of these two people seeing each other realistically.
The casting of this work is impeccable. Each actor manages to take us back to another time; believing the motivations of their characters. I watched several televised interviews with Keira Knightley about her role. This was one of her favorite books ad she was anxious to play Elizabeth. At first the producers felt that she was too attractive to play the role but good sense won out and she was cast. Knightley has been in a lot of films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks and the recent female bounty hunter tale, Domino. None of her previous works showed off her innate talent as does this film. Knightley has a commanding presence on the screen. She juxtaposes gentleness with a stark conviction playing Elizabeth. She gives a new life to this time honored literary character; the definitive presentation of Elizabeth Bennett. This slight built young woman certainly earned her 2006 Oscar nomination for Best Actress with a powerful presentation. Matthew Macfadyen gives the right touch to Mr. Darcy. He can be aloof and superior switching gears to a more sensitive side. He allows emotional growth for this character that is great to watch. Brenda Blethyn also takes us back in time as Mrs. Bennett. She helps us understand on an emotional level what drives this character. Mrs. Bennett cannot afford to be concerned with such things as what her daughters may want, they need to be married to ensure the security of the family and that is all. I was pleasantly surprised with the casting of Jena Malone as the youngest Bennett daughter. I have been impressed with her considerable acting talents since her performance at age twelve in ‘Hidden in America’. Her recent work in the dark comedy ‘Saved!’ further showed she has acting chops. Here she fits in perfectly in this period piece.
Director Joe Wright faced a formidable task taking on this film. Many fans of the novel felt the 1995 British mini-series was the definitive treatment but Wright took the story in a fresh direction. For a director to work on a period piece with such complex story lines and character development is without a doubt a difficult chore. Even though Wright does not have a lot of time at the helm of big budget productions he handles it as the consummate professional. He captures the 18th century perfectly. The various social interactions are choreographed with attention to details, just like the numerous ball room dances shown. His use of the camera is voyeuristic, offering a view of the characters as real people. The set design is amazing. The lighting could not have been done any better. While there is a full screen version of the film available you should only see this movie in the aspect ratio that was intended. You would miss so much of the tapestry of the sets otherwise.
A film of this scope and beauty deserves the best possible transfer to DVD. Universal provides this flawlessly. It is the attention to detail in the presentation that makes this release very special. When I received the screener there were rose petals surrounding the DVD, a nice touch especially for a review copy of the disc. The anamorphic video is presented in 2.35:1 aspect. The color balance is exceptional. Each color is warm and inviting. The contrast allows for the slightest detail of the set and costumes to be visible. The Dolby 5.1 audio is vibrant. The speakers enfold the room with a full ambience and channel separation. The extras are among the best I’ve seen for a film of this type. There is a look at the Bennett family that will help those not familiar with the novel to understand some of the characters. The behind the scenes featurette details the arduous task of re-creating 18th century England. There is also the HBO first look program that goes into what takes to make such and elaborate film. Joe Wright’s commentary track is a bit technical but his enthusiasm for the film comes through. Don’t dismiss this film as just another sappy love story. It is truly great literature brought to the screen.