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We take an early look at Universal Pictures’ 6th February 2006 UK R2 release of the recent Keira Knightley vehicle. In the years since 1813, when Jane Austen first let the public read about Ms. Bennet and Mr. Darcy, many attempts have been to bring Pride & Prejudice to the small and large screens. Back in 1995, the broader canvas of television allowed the BBC to put on a lavish production that is still very highly regarded, but does this effort suffer under the cinematic time restrictions, and is the disc itself worthy of purchase?

Pride & Prejudice

Feature


”Perfectly tolerable, I dare say, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five daughters—Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Lydia and Kitty—are a happy bunch. Their home on the Longbourn Estate is not the most lavish, but the comforts are there. Unfortunately, under the wrong circumstances the property would fall to their cousin and Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn— Saving Grace, Secrets & Lies) is determined to protect their future. The siblings like nothing better than to frolic and laugh like good sisters should, but only timely reminders from their mother push them back to the stark reality that they must marry, and marry well.

As fate would have it, news of a new arrival in the town spreads quickly and good old mum decides that the newest incumbent of Netherfield Park—a certain Mr. Charles Bingley (Simon Woods)—should marry her eldest daughter, Jane (Rosamund Pike— Die Another Day, Doom). It seems that he will make his first appearance at the local dance, and there Mrs. Bennet will make sure he gets introduced to the right people.

It turns out, however, that he is a bit of a fumblesome chap, but this does not stop Jane from finding him attractive. The attraction does appear to be mutual, but young Lizzie (Keira Knightley— Bend it Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and the others are more preoccupied with Bingley’s friend, Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen—the BBC’s Spooks (aka MI-5). It doesn’t take long before an overheard conversation persuades Lizzie that he is perhaps not the most gracious man on the planet, though.

Pride & Prejudice
Of course, they must still go to Netherfield Park and welcome their new neighbours properly. Even if Mr. Darcy is most distasteful, a pairing between Jane and his host would still be favourable.

”It’s many years since I’ve had such an exemplary vegetable.”

Getting Jane and Charles together would appear to be going well, and Mrs. Bennet’s astuteness (some would say occult powers) leads to her daughter catching a terrible cold and having to stay at Netherfield Park until she is well again (yup, that old chestnut). On visiting her sister to see how see is recovering, Lizzie is brought back into the proximity of Mr. Darcy. Still the cold fish that he has been on their previous encounter, some may have noticed that the sheer force of nature that is Lizzie may actually be breaking through his tough exterior, but then the residents of Netherfield Park return to whence they came without a word.

Mrs. Bennet still has grand plans for Lizzie though, and the arrival of their cousin, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander— Gosford Park, Bedrooms and Hallways), gives her the opportunity to farm off another one of her daughters. The thought of marrying such a man does not sit well with Lizzie at all as Mr. Collins is, frankly, positively ridiculous, and coincidences continue to bring her into contact with Mr. Darcy.

Joe Wright has been receiving a few plaudits for what is his first feature outing, and while not a major Hollywood blockbuster it is still a fairly high profile movie to kick off a mainstream career with. His endeavours have already won him a ‘Best New Filmmaker’ award from the Boston Society of Film Critics and he is up for a ‘Best Breakthrough Filmmaker’ award from the Online Film Critics Society, as well as a recently announced nomination for the ‘Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer’ BAFTA (one of six that it is up for there). But, I hear you ask, is the attention justified?

Pride & Prejudice
As with most dramatisations of novels, having to cram enough of the pages into a two hour movie can be a bit hit and miss, and some even manage to rip the heart out of the story in the process. Something like that would be a travesty here, but is thankfully avoided—to a point. The one problem I had with the film was that time slips by quite fluidly, and indications of just how much time has passed since the last scene are not obvious (at least to me). You lose a little sense of just how long the events take to unfold but, like I said, chopping novels down always—well, almost always—results in some price being paid.

That is, however, pretty much my only qualm. You can tell from the commentary that things did not turn out exactly as he would have wanted shot-wise (more on that below), but the director has brought together a cast of both experienced and fledgling acting talent and they all seem to gel quite nicely.

The parents have been cast perfectly to my mind. Brenda Blethyn is assured as the mother, injecting just enough humour and determination into the role and not descending into caricature. For Mr. Bennet, a Canadian would seem a strange choice for an 18th Century English father, but Donald Sutherland underplays it so well, and exudes a love for his daughters without gushing onto the screen. The two key scenes with himself and Keira Knightley, where he shows that as long as his daughter is happy then he is ecstatic, are tonally spot-on. Of course, he has had a fair bit of practice with this acting lark over the years.

The other elder statesperson of the acting world to grace the youngsters with her presence is Dame Judi Dench. Suitably uptight and disgusted with the poorer folk, her sour-faced Lady De Bourg seems to reserve a special form of spite for the unfortunate Mr. Collins, but Lizzie does eventually give her what for.

Pride & Prejudice
And the daughters? Well, the two newcomers—Talulah Riley and Carey Mulligan—both seem to have great fun playing Mary and Kitty, although the former has to stay fairly restrained as the role demands it. Jena Malone ( Donnie Darko) is giggly, flirty and headstrong as the wayward Lydia, and manages a decent English accent to boot.

Lydia does get a little storyline of her own with a military suitor (the dishonest Wickham, played by Rupert Friend), but it is the two elder sisters—Jane and Lizzie—that are at the forefront of this yarn. Rosamund Pike and Keira Knightley play the different roles quite well, with Ms. Pike displaying an uncertainty and shyness that is the polar opposite of Ms. Knightley’s confident Lizzie. And she, of course, is who we should be concentrating on. I do quite like Keira, and though she does have her critics I’ve found the roles she has been in quite well done, if a little undemanding (I haven’t seen Domino, mind). Here it seems that the ‘English Rose’ is the type of role that she was born for, even though this one has a thorny side to her nature. The steadfast will of Lizzie as she tussles with the knowledge that marrying is a must while trying to temper it with her own needs is brought, at times quite cheekily, to life here.

The object of her toying is the straight-laced Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Matthew Macfadyen manages to guide him from insufferable to love-struck throughout the course of the movie with apparent ease.

It is not hard to tell that the cast worked well together here, and had a lot of fun doing it. This no doubt worked in Joe Wright’s favour, and there is enough experience in front of the camera to make any director’s job easier. He still had to bring it all together though, and get the look and feel of the classic novel right so that generations of readers would not hunt him down. The locations and costumes certainly lend a lot of weight to the proceedings, and the attention to detail in the dancing sequences doesn’t do any harm either.

Pride & Prejudice
For me, one of the more subtle scenes spoke volumes about the approach taken to the film, when Lizzie and Darcy part company at a dance. I didn’t realise until everyone else faded back in that a scene that started off in a heavily populated ballroom had been reduced to just the two leads alone in the room, just long enough to illustrate nicely that the two only had eyes for each other. Take that as an example, and you get the idea that this bloke has decent vision, but we’ll have to wait and see whether it can be transposed to other genres.

A good cast and a classic story mean nothing unless you have someone to tie the two elements together, and Mr. Wright has fashioned an enjoyable two hours. By its very nature this is a slow burner, although obviously not as slow-burning as the six hours the BBC had to play with, and my reservations about the muddiness of the passage of time in the movie in no way stop this from being a fine start to Joe Wight’s résumé.

Video


There isn’t really anything particularly bad to say about the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, but then it doesn’t really excel overall either. You can see a lot of background detail—right down to some detailed brickwork—in some of the shots, but conversely skin texture never seems to show up very well and the picture is a little grainy in places. Colour itself is muted but accurate, and shadow detail is adequate although a little edge enhancement shows up every now and again. Contrast, too, is good, but I did think there was a problem until I realised that the altering brightness in some shots was more to do with the lighting selection (i.e. flickering candles) than shoddy cinematography.

Pride & Prejudice
Usually I can pick out a few more things, but it’s all fairly middling in terms of visual excellence. It isn’t reference quality, it will look good on most sets, but I fear some of the larger screens out there will expose the average nature of the transfer.

Subtitles are readable and available in no less than fifteen languages for everything on the disc that would require them. The layer change is well placed on a nice, still shot of Ms. Knightley at 1h29m50s in chapter twelve.

Audio


The sound quality in the sole English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is actually very good, if a little front-biased. The rear channels do enough to provide an engaging soundstage, but directional effects are virtually non-existent - not that that is a problem in a film of this nature. The subwoofer rarely kicks in, although the Military march at around 18m50s does provide a bit of a thump from the drums, and there is plenty of normal bass depth in elements such as the piano playing that turns up throughout the movie.

The clarity of the vocals is never a problem, and the high end of the track comes nicely into play in the outdoors, with birdsong and rivers providing plenty of the appropriate atmosphere. A decent track that works well with the movie.

Pride & Prejudice
 

Extras


While only a single disc release, there is still a fair selection of additional features. The featurettes are all presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 (clips of the film are in the correct 2.35:1 ratio) with English Dolby Digital Stereo tracks, and all of the subtitle languages that are there for the main feature available where required—including the commentary.

Which brings us neatly on to the director’s commentary with Joe Wright. This does come across as a very negative observation on his own work at times, but at least it shows a willing to cast a critical eye over what is his first major feature outing. It is obvious that he enjoyed working with the cast, and that time and weather conditions are the bane of all directors, even if he wishes he could have done some things better. His reasons for not liking certain results are explained thoroughly, though, and it is a fairly informative and good humoured track—with a couple of bleeped moments.

There are also several short features crammed onto the disc. The first, ‘The Politics of 18th Century Dating’ (4m24s) is a speedy look at the ways which families around the end of the century in question looked to wealthy suitors as candidates for marriage. The difficulties in persuading eligible bachelors to marry into poorer families are touched upon, as is the culture inherent in the film and book, but the brief runtime does not allow for an in depth investigation.

‘The Bennets’ (6m01s) seeks to explore Elizabeth’s family’s relationships, and their portrayal, a little deeper. With input from screenwriter Deborah Moggach, director Joe Wright, Keira, Brenda, Rosamund and others, this is another whistlestop tour of ideas, but does manage to pack a lot of information into the short runtime.

Pride & Prejudice
 ‘The Life and Times of Jane Austen’ (8m03s) provides a little insight into the author’s body of work and her inspirations. The experiences and cultures surrounding her short life around the turn of the 19th Century are briefly examined but this mini-biography is more about the impact her novels have today than the woman herself.

The ‘On Set Diaries’ (6m16s, non-anamorphic 1.78:1) is a collection of snippets featuring the cast talking candidly about the filming and working with the others actors and actresses, and it all sounds just a little too perfectly wonderful. But then that’s probably me just being cynical.

A collection of short features coupled with rolling photo galleries are up next. ‘The Stately Homes of Pride & Prejudice’ presents us with a map and allows us to find out a little more information on the filming locations for the movie, including addresses and website details:

  • Groombridge Place (a 4m25s clip, accompanied by 9 photos) was the Bennet’s abode;
  • Basildon Park (2m13s, 17 photos) which played the part of Charles Bingley’s rented accommodation, Netherfield Hall;
  • Chatsworth House (2m56s, 9 photos) shows us Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley home;
  • Wilton House (2m30s, 10 photos), which supplemented Chatsworth House for some of Darcy’s interiors.
  • Burghley (3m53s, 15 photos) showcases Lady Catherine de Bourg’s Rosings residence;

There is a bit of information on the production work that was required for each location and the problems brought about by having to avoid physically attaching scenery to a lot of the places given their historic nature. Given the lack of a more in-depth ‘Making Of’, this does at least prove that the majority of locations were real places rather than studio sets and reinforces the realistic feel of the film.

Pride & Prejudice
 ‘Galleries of the 19th Century’ contains several themed ‘rolling galleries’, featuring items from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

  • Clothing and Costumes (30 pictures, 2m03s duration);
  • Jewellery and Accessories (10 pictures, 40s);
  • Furniture and Furnishings (16 pictures, 1m03s);

The photos themselves are a little small, and are obviously no substitute for the real items if you are into this sort of thing. Some sort of calming music over the each showcase might have been nice as well.

The ‘Pride & Prejudice Family Tree’ is an awkward affair, allowing you to navigate around the individual families—albeit not very intuitively—and get further details on selected members. A wider focus would have made it easier to figure out the connections between the various characters, with selections ‘zooming’ in to the level that this is presented at. As it stands, you don’t get a good idea of the relationships without a decent amount of concentration, and there is nothing here that can’t be ascertained from watching the film.

Surprisingly, there is also an alternate ending (2m29s). This doesn’t change the outcome of the film in any way, but it is part of the US version and is actually more of an extended ending than an alternate one. This contains a few tender moments of Darcy and Elizabeth after the shot of Donald Sutherland that the UK version closes on, which itself was more of a coda to the proper ending of the two almost kissing under the sunset.

Finally, there is a trailer, although not for the main feature itself but Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee (2m23s, DD2.0 Stereo, anamorphic 1.78:1).

I often find myself saying this about the extras on single disc editions of films, but the commentary is the only thing of any real value. There is obviously plenty of mileage in the historical ideals of the time, and the subject would deserve more than the little pieces gathered here. However, what is here does support the film, even if some of it seems like it is taking work away from the Tourist Board. A slightly different set of features accompanies the US-R1 disc at the end of February, but this looks to be slightly less content even if it has an ‘HBO First Look’ on there (not a great loss in my experience anyway).

Pride & Prejudice

Overall


I’ll quite happily swallow my pride, don my big girl’s blouse, and say that I enjoyed this, much the same as I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love many moons ago. I am not as familiar as some with the original novel, or indeed the yardstick that is the BBC’s 1995 effort that all adaptations of the work have to be held to—9.4/10 from near 8,500 votes on the IMDb puts that out of the reach of many decent attempts - but this stands well enough on its own. The chemistry between Ms. Knightley and Mr. Macfadyen works very well indeed, but the overall ensemble is what seals the deal.

The disc itself is satisfactory, and the menus play out with scenes from the film and fit in nicely (examples of these, along with the high-res cover art, can be found by following the link below). One annoyance with them, however, is the way in which the film will start playing if you dawdle too long on the main screen, and even the lower levels will return you to the main menu after a short time. The video presentation, while not awful, could be better by today’s standards, especially for such a recent film. It’s not bad, but some of the other releases in the last year have really spoilt us. Extras-wise, this isn’t bad for a single disc affair, but again there could have been something of more substance. It’s all going to be down to whether the film appeals to you or not.


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