The Extra Inch
by Jeff Reichert
Pride and Prejudice
Dir. Joe Wright, U.K., Focus Features
I’d probably have laughed if anyone had told a younger version of myself—one freshly indoctrinated into and enamored of the Nouvelle Vague, early Soviet Cinema, and the other great assaults on dominant narrative models—that just a decade later I’d be finding much of my pleasure at the movies in a cinema markedly less precocious—that age and experience would lead me to firmly believe was not an inch less personal than that other stuff, merely less consciously so. To that younger me, films I’ve loved of this year like Bad News Bears, Oliver Twist, Separate Lies, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, War of the Worlds, and now Pride and Prejudice, would have been anathema to a newly acquired, activist, and yes, youthful bent against convention; back then I was busy welcoming the post–Pulp Fiction “Golden Era” of Indiewood’s most rapid expansion. But in the wake of years of Amerindies that have so readily co-opted idiosyncrasy into its own kind of conformity, a scene I once digested with little question seems to have less and less to offer. In 2005, I’ve found more refuge with old hands trying to work within prescribed boundaries (recognizable genres and tropes, literary adaptations) at infusing familiar material with a whiff of the personal. To somehow say that Miranda July’s quirk-a-thon Me and You and Everyone We Know is more of an individualized artistic statement than War of the Worlds seems ridiculous in light of how much the former fits a well-worn mold while the other breaks down walls in effort to escape the same. I suppose it all just goes to show that what we go to the movies hoping for is often, as much as we’re loath to admit it, a powerful predictor of what we end up finding, and all of this is subject to drastic shifts of time and context.
Joe Wright’s a new name amidst those of Spielberg, Boorman, Linklater, Polanski, and Park, but his obvious (and frankly unexpected) allegiance to craftsmanship over stylization places him firmly in their camp and in line with this year’s other great, unself-conscious debut: Phil Morrison’s Junebug. What Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice may lack in accomplishment, it certainly makes up for in ambition and an honest willingness to whittle grandiose designs down into an appropriate relationship with its source material. How else to account for a film that allows itself the time to linger far longer than necessary on a drab hallway whose single adorning feature is a white, unlit candlestick, placed in an equally unremarkable white window frame as if trying to wring meaning out of a monochromatic Hammershøi canvas? Or one that seems intent on capturing some of the spirit of Russian Ark’s more vigorous moments by choreographing complex, lengthy camera movements through crowded ballrooms, movements notable not so much for how they progress from start to finish but for the layers of information subtly revealed in every part of the frame along the way? (Wright cites Altman as an influence here as well.) Or one that punctuates its more visually cacophonous set pieces with quick little zooms that serve as neat bits of underlining? All of these choices are notable for two reasons: First, Wright’s aesthetic tics call attention to the narrative, not the tics themselves. Second, and perhaps most importantly, I value these moves greatly because a filmed version of Jane Austen featuring an attractive cast of fresh faces and reliable codgers propping up a hot young ingénue needn’t choose to do any of them to find an audience.
For the initiates, Pride and Prejudice is the story of the five Bennett sisters as they negotiate the complicated codes and rituals of 19th-century British courtship. Jane (Rosamund Pike), the eldest, is the most immediately striking of the sisters, but she may be slightly vacant and somewhat hesitant in her dealings with men. Lydia (Jena Malone) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan) are younger, frivolous, and completely boy crazy, while dark, sullen Mary (Talulah Riley), shuns the active pursuit of love. Smack in the middle is our heroine, Elizabeth (Knightley), introduced as all willful, intelligent women of the period must be: Book in hand, wandering alone on the family estate. The family is rounded out by its patriarch, Mr. Bennett (Donald Sutherland—a wonderful performance for which would well-deserve his first Academy Award nomination), genial and wise, yet not infallible, and matriarch Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn), comically shrewish, cunning and wholly marriage minded, here a somewhat practical trait given the Bennett family’s questionable financial situation. Their modest house, which might once have been grand, is now shabby and fraying, but Wright fills his homestead interiors to the gills with the family itself such that the extent of their relative impoverishment is allowed to develop naturally as a subsidiary plot element (especially once the film begins to spin out a host of subdivisions to this ostensibly unified class by parading through some truly grand country estates) rather than being immediately foregrounded and thus casting into stereotype.
Being a romantic comedy (though Austen’s wit seemed occasionally somewhat lost on my overstuffed Saturday evening post-Thanksgiving crowd), Pride and Prejudice of course has a central couple to bring together even as it’s dissecting class and code. Though three of the sisters are provided romantic arcs, it’s Lizzie Bennett and the appropriately dashing, rich, and publicly sour Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) upon whom the narrative rests. Their initial meetings are colored by the mutual affects of the film’s titular vices, and this introductory misapprehension spins out into some of Austen’s wonderfully coy verbal sparring on gender roles and relationships. MacFadyen may seem at first a bit of a bore as an actor, but only in comparison to Knightley, who finally has a role to relish and takes full advantage of a fierce intelligence that seems to have gone underground since (yes) Pirates of the Caribbean. This dance lasts until around midway through the film when Mr. Darcy, unexpectedly, proposes marriage. She, believing him a cad with a hand in the dissolution of her sister’s courtship of his friend Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), viciously denies him, and this marks the moment when their romance (and MacFadyen’s performance) truly begins to blossom. It doesn’t give away too much to say that surfaces deceived them both, and that all ends well, appropriately enough with the two lovers in a field at sunrise, eyes closed, foreheads touching, silhouetted by the sun, and gloriously, not kissing. Mushy score aside, it’s one of the most approachably sensual moments I saw in movies this year.
Having not read the source material (or any of Austen’s work for that matter), I had an immediate response to the trailer that revealed the full scope of my own pride and prejudices. Having long shunned most books older than 1890 in favor of self-consciously “difficult” and “challenging” modernist texts, finding my eyes opened by adaptations of Austen and Dickens in the same year was as thrilling as it was humbling. And of course, much credit goes to both of these filmmakers for conjuring tactile, lived-in period settings, but there are reasons why both Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice exist in myriad mass market paperback versions. Kudos to both Wright and Polanski for recognizing that, and knowing that a stylistic tussling with a classic novel doesn’t necessarily do your audience, or your author any favors—there are other, subtler ways to add cinematic value. For those who caught a television ad for Pride and Prejudice smeared with Jon Mayer and worried this might be a hyper-cut tweener take, rest assured it’s not. And for those Austen fans outraged by another bit of “value” added—the tacked-on candles and champagne money shot (which the Brits won’t be privy to)—well, I like to think that what Mr. Wright’s accomplished with the rest of the film would suggest some sense, and a sensibility that’s more than a little apologetic for that.