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Pride and Prejudice – Rach 2 or almost

Pride and Prejudice – Director Joe Wright

Not quite Rachmaninov but close. Matthew MacFadayen’s Mr Darcy emerging from the early morning mist to open his passionate heart to Elizabeth Bennett runs neck and neck, or rather chest to chest, with Colin Firth’s wet shirt. It’s the surging sub-Rachmaninov score that perhaps gives it the edge.

It’s a challenge: you have about two hours to deal with a complex multi-layered book taking a witty, sharp-eyed satirical look at complex social mores, and class-defined relationships. But at the heart of this is one of the most powerful and endlessly appealing love stories in fiction. Movie-wise, box-office-wise it’s a no brainer. And Joe Wright goes for broke. Every cinematic skill allied to a focused Deborah Moggagh screenplay, is superbly employed to crank up the repressed passion of Lizzie and Darcy. And you’d have to be a curmudgeonly old cynic or an Austen purist to deny that it works. Early feminist piece? Get of out of here. Right book, wrong movie.

Hoplessly corrupted over too many years of too many Hollywood great romances – I loved it. The outrageous over-the topness of it. Inevitably as the film is focused on the love story, nearly every other character in the film is reduced to cameo. But what cameos. Tom Hollander’s Malvolio-like Reverend Collins who could bow and scrape and bore for England is deliciously observed. Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs Bennett manages to tease out the underlying sympathy due to her appallingly embarrassing character. Judy Dench’s Grande Dame Lady Catherine is as tone perfect as it is possible to get. And Donald Sutherland, in my favourite role in the piece as the bemused, over-wifed, over-daughtered, Mr Bennett, turns in a finely judged performance. Aside from the passion of the main love story; the conspiratorial, wry, deep love between this father and his favourite daughter, is for me, the most satisfying relationship in both book and film. Mr Bennett loves precisely Lizzie’s intelligence, independence, and wilfulness. It has done no harm to the feminist cause that there are men like Mr Bennett, who admire, respect, and nurture, those very qualities that women have had to fight to have recognised and accepted more widely. And Mr Bennett’s sense of loss as he consents to the marriage of the daughter he never thought any man could be good enough for her to love, is the most moving moment in the movie.

The film is sumptuous to look at; every image lovingly fashioned and milked for every ounce of romantic resonance by a score that echoes Rachmaninov 2 in more ways than one; with long, mournful, solo piano sections building to surging strings as the tension and the passion mounts. Visually we are at times in Hitchcock’s Rebecca territory with rugged landscapes disappearing to infinity. And one gloriously incongruous and totally out of place shot, has Lizzie standing precariously at the edge of a desolate rocky precipice looking for all the world as if she’s going to cry out for Heathcliffe. (Next up Mr Wright? Same Leads?) No visual cliché is missed, including of course the sun back-lit final coming together (the chaste kiss that is). Mind you it would have been nice if they’d set up the shot differently so that Keira Knightley didn’t have to conspicuously turn ninety degrees to set up the profile. The only restrained thing about this movie is its ending. But that works very well and tends to support the idea that the florid, Hollywood style of the rest is quite intentional.

The narrowing of the story to Lizzie and Darcy could have been dire if the actors weren’t up to it. But Knightley and MacFadyen are excellent. There is real chemistry between them and the sheer tension of unrequited passion is palpable in the key scenes. Knightley is far too breathtakingly beautiful for Austen’s actual heroine, but she is becoming an accomplished screen actress who can make those gorgeous dark eyes eloquent in suggesting intelligence, fire and wilfulness. Life. And her gamine, almost ballet-like swan-necked grace can get the blood running in more than Mr Darcy. I’m not quite sure what she does with her smile when laughing and wish she wouldn’t, but when she’s on screen – like Scarlett Johansson, you look. MacFadyen just gets better and better. His fine performance in the flawed but satisfying ‘My Father’s Den’, is as different as one can imagine from Darcy. But you believe in his misunderstood, stiff-necked character, and the inner passion that personal insecurities hold trapped within. He is the ultimate modern male romantic hero: a man whose debilitating inability to express his deepest feelings is unlocked by the love of a strong, passionate woman. This stuff plays! Big. Hearts were fluttering big-time in my nearly full cinema – and that was just the hopelessly romantic guys. This one will do great business. Rightly – if you take it for what it is – simply a superb piece of romantic, escapist cinema.

(November 2005)

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