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Friday, Jan. 27, 2006

Conservatism can work

Pride and Prejudice

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Joe Wright
Running time: 127 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

News photo
Keira Knightley in "Pride and Prejudice" (c)2006 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Keira Knightley is one of those stars who seem to become famous in an instant, with no real rhyme or reason behind such a meteoric rise. Knightley went from being a face in the crowd in "Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace" (1999) to a strong supporting role in Gurinder Chadha's "Bend it Like Beckham," a U.K. hit that did merely all right elsewhere in 2002. The next thing you know, she's playing across Johnny and Orlando in "Pirates of the Caribbean," wearing a leather bikini in "King Arthur," joining England's A-List in "Love Actually," and getting the Angelina Jolie/Milla Jovovich role in Tony Scott's "Domino."

OK, so Knightly has more than a passing resemblance to Winona Ryder, and has become a queen of popcorn cinema, but can the girl act? The jury has been out on this one, but along comes "Pride and Prejudice" to prove Knightly's more than just a perfect pair of lips and historic jawline.

"Pride and Prejudice," the 1813 novel by Jane Austen, is one of those tales that has been done to death on both the big and small screen, with the most recent being a faux-Bollywood version, "Bride and Prejudice," directed by Chadha and starring the princess of Indian cinema, Aishwarya Rai. It's hard to beat that for audacity, and Joe Wright's adaptation with Keira in the lead doesn't try. But when you're dealing with one of the most-loved works in English literature, a little conservatism is not a bad thing.

Wright sticks with the basics of English "heritage cinema," and delivers what we've all come to expect: unspoiled bucolic idylls, bosom-boosting frocks, outrageously opulent manors, fancy dress balls, obsequious servants and articulate, sharp dialogue that is such a rare pleasure in our age of like, y'know, whatever.

Wright's first problem is, of course, how to pass off Knightley as Lizzie Bennett, a girl whose own mother calls "plain." Keira can play tomboy-ish (see "Beckham") when necessary, but "plain"? The director attempts to solve the problem by casting a blonde Bond-girl, Rosamund Pike, a more conventional beauty, as Lizzie's older sister, Jane, and the ruse largely works.

Lizzie and Jane's father, Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland), looks after his wife (Brenda Blethyn) and five daughters in a slightly dilapidated but charming old house in the countryside of southeast England. Rich, they are not, but life is comfortable enough. Mr. Bennet, however, is getting on in years, and if he were to die, his cousin would inherit the manor, leaving the Bennet womenfolk homeless. This is a situation that Mrs. Bennet, a born meddler, hopes to rectify by having her daughters marry up. Jane is the true beauty, hence her best hope when the wealthy and landed Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) comes to a local ball.

Matters are thwarted somewhat -- and what would a romance novel be without obstacles -- by Mr. Bingley's sullen, apparently snobbish friend, Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). He starts off on the wrong foot by dissing Lizzie within earshot, and furthers the insult by interfering in the seemingly blissful attraction of Jane and Bingley. As usual, however, it's the opposites who attract, and Lizzie's brusque self-confidence starts to attract the ever-serious Darcy. Throw in an unwelcome suitor, the pompous Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), and a dashing cad, the army officer Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), and you have all the complications necessary to keep the plot ticking along for two hours. Many viewers, however, will come to this film already knowing the story; the question becomes how well can the cast bring alive Austen's characters?

The answer: very well indeed. Knightley and Macfadyen never hit a wrong note. Lizzie, a character close to Austen's own heart, seems very modern in her ways some two centuries on; a romantic who rejects the idea of strategic marriage, whether or not there's any man who could win her untamed heart. Knightley attains the perfect pitch of prickly, sharp-tongued wit and down-to-earth honesty. She puts the appropriate bite into a line like "Men are either eaten up by arrogance or stupidity," and her expression of shocked incoherence when Mr. Collins ineptly proposes ("I assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affections.") makes the scene. Her strong-shouldered posture and unwavering gaze are perfect for the scenes in which she goes up against her social superiors, but she can melt on cue as well. Best of all is that she resists the temptation to let current mannerisms seep into her act.

Macfadyen, as Darcy, has a difficult task, as Colin Firth was well-loved in this role in a recent BBC adaptation, but he handles it well, moving from dour, gruff elitist to a man perfectly confused by the stirrings of his heart. He has to move, as well, from being thoroughly dislikable to this tale's Prince Charming, and he handles the shift with nuanced gradations of change.

"Pride and Prejudice" -- hot on the heels of "Oliver Twist" and "A Good Woman" -- shows that the literary adaptation trend continues unabated. Given the dearth of memorable stories in filmmaking today, where the streamlined, three-act formula has come to dominate the industry, it's no wonder that a director in search of a good script will turn to the classics. As far as art-house cinema goes, lit-flicks may be the most conservative strand, but it's one that's likely to be with us for awhile.

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