Pride and Prejudice

Joe Wright's new version of Jane Austen's beloved novel “Pride & Prejudice” is breaking box-office records in the UK, and it's easy to see why. This wide screen adaptation is vivid and sumptuously produced, and it's both faithful and modern in its approach to the source material, in a way that Polanksi's “Oliver Twist” is not (hence its commercial failure).

Wright gives the classic the kind of buoyant interpretation and visual style that differ from the TV versions and the stale MGM movie of 1940. Decidedly not in the vein of the Merchant Ivory literary adaptations, this “Pride & Prejudice” should have broad appeal with American audiences, going beyond the arthouse crowd, female viewers, and fans of the book. Open-minded viewers not demanding a slavish adaptation or stately style should respond to the movie's emotional sweep, splendid visuals, and marvellous ensemble acting, headed by the talented Keira Knightley, who at 20, emerges as a major international star.

Austen wrote a fairy tale-like novel, but like the best fairy tales, it's based in social realism and has inherent emotional truths that have remained relevant through the generations, and are worth telling over and over again. Though dramatized for TV several times (in 1938, 1952, 1967, 1980, and 1995), “Pride & Prejudice” has been a feature only once before, in 1940, directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. Over the decades, Austen's depiction of Lizzie and Darcy has been appropriated as the core of many other films. Indeed, “Pride and Prejudice” has provided the template to so many romantic comedies that it comes as a surprise that no film proper has been made for 65 years.

With this big-screen version, Wright and his colleagues are intent on not conforming to the TV drama stereotypes of a perfect Regency world. They felt it was time to bring Austen's original story back in all its glory, wit, and emotional resonance, focusing on Lizzie rather than the romance. Faithful to the setting and period of the beloved novel, this “Pride & Prejudice” was filmed entirely on location in the U.K.

Although the novel was published in 1813, Austen wrote her first draft, then called “First Impressions,” in 1797. Coming from a character-oriented British realist filmmaking style, production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran have used the fashions of the earlier period, where the waist on dresses was lower and more flattering. When Caroline Bingley appears, she wears the latest creation, but for authenticity's sake, Mrs. Bennet's and Lady Catherine's are even earlier. End result is an exquisite picture of nuanced texture, fabric and color.

Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach emphasize the novel's youthful essence and its richly detailed setting. The tale of love and misunderstanding unfolds in class-conscious England at the end of the eighteenth century. The five Bennet sisters, Elizabeth, or Lizzie (Keira Knightley), Jane (Rosamund Pike), Lydia (Jena Malone), Mary (Talulah Riley), and Kitty (Carey Mulligan), have been raised well aware of their mother's (Brenda Blethyn) fixation on finding them husbands and thus securing their futures. Spirited and intelligent Elizabeth, however, strives to live her life with a broader perspective, as encouraged by her doting father (Donald Sutherland).

When wealthy bachelor Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) takes up residence in a nearby mansion, the Bennets are abuzz. Amongst the man's sophisticated circle of London friends and the influx of young militia officers, there will be no shortage of suitors for the Bennets. Eldest daughter Jane, serene and beautiful, seems poised to win Bingley's heart. For her part, Lizzie meets with the handsome and seemingly snobbish Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen)

The battle of the sexes begins, with the encounters between Lizzie and Darcy, which are spirited yet discouraging. Lizzie is even less inclined to accept a marriage proposal from a distant cousin, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), and, supported by her father, stuns her mother and Collins by declining. When the good-natured Bingley abruptly departs for London, devastating Jane, Lizzie holds Darcy culpable for contributing to the heartbreak. But a crisis involving youngest sister Lydia opens Lizzie's eyes to her true relationship with Darcy. The ensuing rush of feelings leaves no one unchanged, inspiring the Bennets to reaffirm what's most important in life.

The first reel places the viewers in late eighteenth century market-town life and introduces the everyday lives of the main characters. The film then cuts straight to the first local ball, where Elizabeth's elder sister Jane comes under Bingley's eye but Elizabeth herself gets off on quite the wrong foot with Bingley's handsome but standoffish friend, Darcy. As Elizabeth and Darcy start their tangled and convoluted courtship, brief scenes swiftly depicts the novel's main developments.
The set of romantic entanglements comes together in another, more upscale ball at Bingley's residence. The movie's big set piece, it zeroes in on as Elizabeth as she negotiates advances from both Collins and Darcy. Wright's use of long steadicam sequences and Moggach's ability to keep a large number of characters in the same scene (and often in the same frame) are remarkable. They give the viewers a precise sense of place within the interlinked rooms.

Wright, whose previous work includes “Charles II: The Power & the Passion” (aired in the U.S. as The Last King), wants to present the story as it was written, casting actors at the ages Austen indicated, and depicting them in a way that avoids TV's chocolate box' presentations, yet he shoots the story in a modern way without subverting it.

Wright's unique approach may be based on the fact that he had never read the book or seen any of its TV versions. Coming from a background of social realist drama, he directs the movie as a character study of a particular social group. One of the first British realist novelists, Austen turned away from the then dominant gothic literature, writing about a subject she knew, thereby inventing a new genre. Wrights treats the text as a piece of British realism rather using a picturesque tradition that tends to depict an idealized version of English heritage

Since Austen's characters are young, Lizzie is 20, Darcy 28, Lydia 15, the emotions they experience are those of young people falling in love for the first time. In his casting, Wright hews closely to the characters' ages as specified by Austen. In the 1940 film, Olivier and Garson were in their 30s, so the whole notion of first love experience was lessened and undermined. Thus, in the book, Fitzwilliam Darcy is 28, and in the movie, Matthew Macfadyen, who plays him, is 29.

Wright utilizes the period's specifics in tandem with emotional truths, so that it becomes relevant to a modern audience. At the time, England's establishment was looking across the Channel at the French Revolution, wondering how it might affect them. The upper classes were frightened, and made the decision to assimilate more with the lower classes. Hence, the Assembly Rooms dances in village halls, which people of Darcy and Bingley's class now attend, allow them to mingle with people they wouldn't previously have ever met socially. It was a whole new era for society, particularly for young women whose marriage prospects were widened.

Moggach is truthful to the book' s three-act structure and shapely narrative, the ultimate romance about two people who think they hate each other but are really passionately in love. The Bennet daughters have to get married off or they face ruin. To modern audiences, these girls seem well off–they live in a big house, with doting parents, and have a carriage and servants. Hence, the filmmakers felt they had to make their economic plight matters, if they don't marry well, theyll be ostracized by their own class and the lower class too.

Unlike the novel, in the movie, Lizzie keeps her secrets to herself. There are things she can't confide to her parents, her friend Charlotte, or even beloved sister Jane. Lizzie sees her father neglecting her sisters, he ignores Lydia's follies, which facilitates her elopement, and she views her parents' marriage as a tragicomedy. Lizzie sees Charlotte, for the sake of security, marry the odious Collins, and sees her beloved older sister sink into lovesick misery. She wonders if her own chance of happiness is disappearing.

The girls' economic dependence, their need to find “good” husbands, was germane to the period, but the underlining emotions are relevant today. Lizzie has a mother who's embarrassing, a best friend who disappoints, unrequited love for Wickham who turns out to be a cad, sisterly loyalties, jealousies, and squabbles; and she falls madly in love with Darcy but can't admit she's in love.

In the novel, the characters are polite, waiting until the other person has finished speaking before speaking themselves. Wright's movie is messier and more realistic. He knows that in big families of girls, everyone speaks over each other, finishing each other's sentences. Hence, in the movie, the Bennet family's conversations are overlapping. The Bennet family is portrayed as a household filled with laughter and movement, based on the notion of lots of girls living in the same house.

The film's most controversial changes are in the characters of Collins and Bingley, both of whom are used for comic relief. But despite being different from the novel's, the actors make their roles work dramatically, allowing modern viewers some detachment through the means of social satire.

The canvas on which Austen painted was small, which is now cited as a criticism of her work. She has been accused of ignoring other social classes and contemporary world events. There's no scene in her books where men are alone in a room together. She either didn't know what men might be talking about, or she wasn't interested. In the movie, though, the wider world is seen through tiny chinks. Reading a letter, Caroline Bingley remarks, “Lady Bathurst is re-decorating her ballroom in the French style. A trifle unpatriotic, don't you think” This sentence was put in as an acknowledgement of the events happening in France. However, throughout, the main interest lies in the family dynamics, not in the historical overview, in depicting a world of girls giggling, sparring, sharing, and having jealousies.

It's unusual for a movie this size to be shot entirely on location, but it was, affording the camera the luxury of seeing outside from inside and vice versa, and follow the characters indoors and outdoors. Groombridge, a seventeenth Century mansion, was chosen to be Longbourn, the Bennets' house.

Seeking to avoid “the picturesque tradition, in which period films rely heavily on paintings where everything is formally composed, Wright goes for wide shots that show off the smallest period detail of the sets, and for close-ups when it comes to intimate conversations. Wright also avoids carriage shots and other visual clichs of costume pictures.

Austen's own critique of her the book was that it was too light-hearted. She felt the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth wasn't realistic enough. The filmmakers take heed of Austen's comments and bring to the movie a realism that isn't in the book. This is particularly in the case of Lizzie, a character that's been strongly identified with and cherished by generations of readers. In this version, too, the filmmakers emphasize that Lizzie doesn't fit the normal feminine conventions; she is bright, tough-minded, challenging, and difficult to live with,