This was written fairly early in my return to movie reviews, when I was finally figuring out how to make reasonable use out these online tundras.
When adapting a Jane Austen novel such as Pride & Prejudice, it must be sorely tempting to try every conceivable trick to make it visually engaging. This sort of period piece from the Approved Canon of Great Literature is especially prone to becoming the sort of staid veddy, veddy English film that Eddie Izzard once identified as “a room with a view with a staircase and a pond type movies.” (“What is it, Sebastian? I’m arranging matches.”) I offer this viewpoint not to excuse first-time feature film director Joe Wright for his flourish-filled effort, but to allow that I understand where he’s coming from.
That acknowledged, there are a couple sections early on in the film when it seems like Wright has a brother-in-law who needs work in the field of laying down mini-railways for tracking shots. The camera runs roughshod through scenes like a little kid who ate too many biscuits with his afternoon tea. Worse, it does so for no discernible purpose. The roving camerawork brings us no deeper into this world, it only proves that Wright can employ some roving camerawork. There are similar distractions involving time passing viewed from a twirling swing, disappearing dancers in a key scene and so on.
It’s especially problematic because the film actually works quite well when Wright simply settles down and let the solidity of the story carry the weight. Austen’s novel was first published in 1813. It follows the Bennet sisters as they make the societal rounds with the notion of securing a husband always in mind. At the forefront is Elizabeth Bennet, forthright, stubborn and quick-witted. This character is played by Keira Knightley, who is perhaps overly reliant on deploying a giggle to fill space when the script gives her little else to do, but acquits herself quite nicely any time she is called upon to rattle off a string of sharp-edged sentences that demonstrate Elizabeth’s considerable smarts.
It seems you can’t discuss a Pride & Prejudice adaptation without addressing the quality of the production’s Mr. Darcy, the rich gentleman whose combative acquaintance with Elizabeth grows into a deeper affection. I’ll settle that account by noting the relative newcomer Matthew MacFayden is quite good in the role, especially in the early scenes in which he survey the gaiety of society parties with cold dead eyes that would make the late great character actor J.T. Walsh proud. And it’s not his fault, after all, that he looks ridiculous in his late film hunky stride across a misty meadow. Unless you’re David Coverdale in a 1980’s Whitesnake video, you’ve really got no business doing that sort of thing.
The back-and-forth between these two characters (and performers) is highly engaging. And Donald Sutherland really excels as the patriarch of the family, finding the right mix of weary resignation with his family of busybodies and tender appreciation of their charms. That family of busybodies is a little more problematic for us in the audience, as Wright continues to amp up the fluttery nonsense of these young women waiting for suitors and their mother’s anxious championing of their marriage worthiness. At times it becomes painfully silly, as if Wright is planning to pitch Those Bennet Sisters as a BBC2 sitcom. It’s just further evidence that the fussier Wright gets, the less effective the film gets. Austen’s novel has endured for almost 200 years, and the potency of her tale can overcome all these little misguided attempts to make it more palatable for modern audiences. But in making these choices Wright is doing his film, and himself, no favors.