Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Bewitchingly Beautiful Adaptation

I am always a sucker for a good British “Heritage” film, especially when it’s a romantic comedy/drama. Pride & Prejudice is no exception, it delivers on all accounts: rooting in iconic literary material, copious shots of far-reaching landscape, meticulously reconstructed architecture, thespian staples Brenda Blethyn Dame Judi Dench as well as an engaging, episodic narrative.

Director Joe Wright refuses to merely present a bland retelling of a story already proven to be a sure-fire winner with audiences over the past two centuries. Instead, Wright injects the film with overflowing energy and vivacity. Wright manages to make the audience feel like they are watching real characters in a real time and place, not just a flaccid simulacrum of 19th century English countryside. He achieves this largely through an abundance of camera movement, particularly zooms, something rather unorthodox for a period piece like this. Miraculously he manages to render a film true to the source material without modernizing it or making it flashy and distracting. The roaming steadicam shots plunge the viewer headlong into the hustle and bustle of ballroom dances in a way that feels natural and realistic without drawing attention to how meticulously choreographed the scenes are. Close-ups are used modestly. The film is more interested in long shots and long takes that let the action unfold uninterrupted further luring the viewer into an illusionary transportation of time and space. Never does it feel like we are seeing minute slivers of studio design with bare walls and technical equipment waiting on the other side. The set dressing is absolutely bursting at the seams.

We can contrast this approach with Scorsese’s cold, overly composed, stilted adaptation of The Age of Innocence to fully appreciate the effects of Pride & Prejudice. The steadicam shots certainly owe a great deal of debt to the master filmmaker but this literary adaptation is much more inviting and engrossing than his admirable but aloof staging.

Of course the bold direction and elaborate design would be empty without skilled actors to inhabit the roles. Fortunately, the cast is all more than qualified, headlined by the spunky Keira Knightly, the doe-eyed Matthew MacFayden and the ever-graceful Donald Sutherland. Complete with an understated and lovely conclusion, Pride & Prejudice is one literary adaptation worthy of its exalted source material.