Monday, July 23, 2007

Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)

When creating a modern adaptation of a classic piece of literature, there are at least two ways in which a director can go wrong. The first way is to treat the famous text with so much reverence that it is not allowed to breathe. It becomes a museum piece where viewers gaze appreciatively at what a past generation must have considered great, but do not fully engage for themselves. The second way is to assume that the viewer will only respond to the work if it is ‘translated’ into something aggressively contemporary. Oftentimes, this method results in an extreme flattening of the source material, causing it to become something utterly banal. For his recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright finds the perfect balance, trusting in the comedy and emotional pull of the two-hundred-year-old story and yet also using modern technology and sensibilities to keep the tale alive and fresh.

Wright does not simply observe the social gatherings where men and women play a highly stylized game of courtship. He puts us in the party. In the one of the film’s most memorable (and perhaps showy) moments, Wright’s camera moves through several rooms at a lively ball, beginning with a father requesting that his musically mediocre daughter stop playing the piano and then sweeping past each of the major players, checking in on their status and giving the viewer an idea of where each is located in relation to each other. While the long tracking shot has become something of a contemporary film cliché, it is utterly appropriate here, giving us a first-hand feeling for how the characters might maneuver around, attempting to create ‘chance’ meetings with those they wish to engage and avoiding those they don’t. After checking in with several characters, the shot finds the father and daughter in an entirely different part of the building, attempting to resolve their prior quarrel. We have not seen all that has transpired in between, thus reinforcing the film’s central theme – that we can often formulate opinions about situations and people based on tiny snippets of information.

Wright’s directorial choices are often adventuresome, but rarely, if ever, do they distract from the film’s main purpose – to convey Austen’s ideas and observations about human interaction. He shows a remarkable eye for composition, such as anytime the Bennett sisters are shown on camera together. They stand about the room, perfectly arranged in a manner pleasing to the eye and yet not so formal as to seem forcefully staged. When the central lovers embrace, the sun shines perfectly between their faces, bathing the union in celestial light. When Elizabeth flees the marriage proposal of the interminably boring Mr. Collins, the camera is positioned with appropriate distance in order to accentuate the comedy of the moment, as she runs down the lane pursued by geese. Wright is also aided by an extraordinary ensemble, led by veterans Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench and with a central performance by starlet Keira Knightley that makes a lasting impression. Only Matthew Macfadyen in the key role of Mr. Darcy seems to be in over his head – or perhaps it is just the awkwardness and social anxiety of his character that I am reading as stiltedness. No matter. His performance does not distract substantially from the film’s building tension – yes, tension! – and palpable emotional pull.

With Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright has managed an extraordinary feat, giving a modern sheen to a classic, without letting it be devoured by our post-modern world. He has not condescended to his viewer, nor asked for our idolatry. He has proceeded with trust in Ms. Austen and the idea that if a classic is to remain a classic, then it must connect with a modern audience on its own terms, not through its reputation. Wright’s adaptation is full of life, humor and sensitivity, announcing this first-time feature director as a talent to be paid careful attention in the years to come.



Anonymous Justine said...

I'm happy you enjoyed Pride and Prejudice so much, one of my favourite films from 2005. Have you seen the BBC miniseries by any chance? How do you think they compare?

8:13 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

I haven't seen the BBC version, so I'm afraid I can't offer an opinion.

9:20 PM  

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