Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
|Better than Average
|Teens Adults Family
|2 hr. 7 min.
|Year of Release:
November 11, 2005 (limited)
DVD: February 28, 2006
|Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland
Joe Wright—“Atonement” (2007)
“Sometimes the last person on Earth you want to be with is the one person you can’t be without.”
Three types of people will enjoy this film: those who have not read the book, those who have read the book, and those who are “Janeites”-ardent fans of Jane Austen.
For the first two groups, the movie will be enjoyable because it is a good love story, with believable character development, interesting settings, and a brisk pace which makes the film’s length seem shorter than its satisfying 127 minutes. The Janeites will fuss and quibble, but eventually they’ll concede that it’s better than the 1940 Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson, if not quite as satisfying as the fuzzy-lens romanticism of the 1995 BBC mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle that is everyone’s favorite. (Warning: small spoilers ahead.)
For those unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice (1813), its premise begins with one of the most famous first sentences in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” The problem in the book and movie is a superfluity of potential wives.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Lydia, and Kitty. Although Jane and Elizabeth have a fetching mixture of sense and sensibility, Mary, alas, is all sense, while Lydia and Kitty regularly dissolve into paroxysms of laughing, crying, and whiney importuning.
Elizabeth, or Lizzy as she’s called, is played by Keira Knightley. The whole story revolves around her personality and much depends on casting. Those who know the book know Lizzy Bennett as one of the wittiest and most attractive women in English literature. It’s no small feat for an actress to fill this role convincingly and Keira Knightley almost succeeds.
The film’s title derives from the faults of the two characters. Lizzy must overcome her tendency to prejudge people on insufficient evidence while Darcy, the romantic love interest played by Matthew McFayden, must overcome his pride. The charm of the story is in showing how this is accomplished, and the movie, to everyone’s relief, accomplishes this in a credible manner. McFayden does a good job of underacting, while Knightley nearly manages to eclipse the disadvantage of her youth in portraying a complex personality.
The real star of the movie is Joe Wright’s direction. While I confess to not liking some of his aesthetic decisions concerning setting, make-up, and dress, he does bring a dynamic quality to the story that is lacking in other period films. He explains the reason for this in an interview with The London Times:
It’s the idea of making it less formal and shooting it in the tradition of British realism.If something is contemporary, people shoot it with zoom lenses and handheld cameras, and if something is period, then they want to shoot it with a static, formal composition. But, actually, zoom lenses are incredibly exciting, because they mean you can move with the moment and improvise. To shoot “Pride and Prejudice” in a so-called contemporary style brings it into fresh relief. (source: The Times)
Cinematically, there are three distinct qualities to look for in this movie. The most obvious, and to most people, the most negative quality, is the film’s general condition of deshabille in hair, clothing, and interior/exterior shots. Many of the characters have hair that is loosely arranged or greasy, wear clothing that is untidy or dirty, dwell in rooms that are inordinately cluttered, while the house itself looks like a pile of bricks set in the middle of a large pig stye crowded with chickens, geese, cows, dogs, horses, and pigs. This is the aspect of the movie that Janeites will dislike the most.
Austen’s interiors were always tidy. Indeed, to show otherwise was to imply a moral judgment against those who live in disorder. Sloveliness would not be an art form until the 20th century.
The second most interesting stylistic effect is Wright’s camera work. The ballroom scenes will make Austen fans claustrophobic because Wright crowds so many people into so small a space. The viewer can feel the closeness and almost smell what no amount of hair powder and perfume could completely disguise in 1797 (the year of Austen’s first draft of the novel). But after an initial moment of panic caused by the viewer’s fear that the whole movie would be as frenetic as an MTV video, Wright regains the viewer’s confidence by establishing a cinematic rhythm that is brisk without being nauseous.
There is one especially masterful shot which takes place at Bingley’s ball. Wright has a backward tracking movement that indiscriminately shows much of the crowd while at the same time telling a backstory of the film’s major characters: we see Lizzy provoked, Mary humiliated, Collins disdained, Jane pursued by Bingley, and then Mary again, comforted by her father (a nice touch that isn’t in the novel).
Thirdly, because Wright shoots in a realistic, as opposed to an objectively static style, the camera often acts as a bystander. This is figured by the amount of peeping that takes place in the movie. Wright uses Mrs. Bennet to establish the theme by showing her smiling at something and then tracking across the room to the private parts of a pig that is walking by. It is a shocking moment, but one that Wright nearly pulls off without being offensive because of the general disorder of the place and the portrayal of Mrs. Bennett as an earthy, foolish woman from whom we would not expect more. Lizzy Bennett peeps around doorways, between cracks, through ribbons, and often lets her gaze fall where a polite lady of her time wouldn’t be caught looking. Presumably, no one sees but the camera, but it is still a poor reflection on the iconic idea of Elizabeth Bennett as being above a child-like curiosity of private areas.
Another aspect of this trope is Wright’s interest in hands. On at least three different occasions he frames a character’s hand flexing, hanging in repose, or slyly grasping the back of a woman’s dress. Eyes and hands are the body parts most figured in this interpretation as opposed to the distracting, low-cut empire-style dresses of the Regency period which riveted everyone’s attention on the women’s busts.
For Janeites and for those who have a professional interest in Austen as I do, the movie is mostly satisfying. Certainly, It’s no small feat for an actress to fill this role convincingly and Keira Knightley almost succeeds was not the best choice for Elizabeth Bennett for a number of reasons. First, her style of acting is in the contemporary mode of the female action hero, the equivalent of casting Bruce Willis as Darcy. Knightley swaggers, smirks, sneers, curls her lips, licks her fingers, and ends nearly every sentence with an open-mouthed Valley Girl expression that diminishes the impression of the character’s intelligence, Elizabeth Bennett’s most striking quality. There is too much of Miss Knightley’s mouth in this movie and not enough of her mind.
In that regard, I would rather have seen an actress like Reese Witherspoon whose work communicates intelligence, regardless of the role she plays. Also, Knightley strikes emotional notes that don’t ring true to the character. She is at times a little too shrill, a little too disdainful, a little too hateful in some of her expressions. It doesn’t help that Deborah Moggach gave her lines that Austen never wrote and Elizabeth Bennett would never say, as when she snaps at her mother: “She may well perish with shame at having such a mother!”
Those quibbles notwithstanding, the movie is an enjoyable experience whose most interesting statement is likewise not in the novel. When Mr. Bennett (Donald Sutherland) states that Lydia must be allowed to go to Brighton else they would never have peace in the house, Lizzy states in a moment of moral clarity: “Peace? Is that all you care about?” The implication here is that the sloveliness of the house is due to the sloveliness of manners that the head of the house has established. For the 18th and 19th centuries, manners were morals.
As Lizzy walks out, the film seems to implicate Mr. Bennett’s callousness by showing him twirling a moth specimen that is spitted on a pin, a dark and highly effective moment of characterization. On the other hand, the movie seems to exonerate Mrs. Bennett in the end by having her respond to Lizzy’s comment about marriage: “Wait til you have five daughters and see what you think about.”
Although the movie is too eccentric in its look, and Knightley is not quite convincing as Elizabeth Bennett, this version of the novel will do nicely until the right actress comes along to stamp the character with the kind of timelessness that Gwyneth Paltrow imparted to the character of Emma.
As a moral tale of the faults of pride and judgment, the film communicates well that none of us are perfect and that we must never judge hastily, or compromise our principles for selfish pleasures or for the expedience of a moral complacency.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.