The opening shot of "Pride & Prejudice" is not one of traditional costume drama primping, judging, or despair. Instead, a single camera captures an English countryside morning, complete with lush greenery, a flurry of singing birds, and a yawning new sun. This shot establishes immediately that director Joe Wright has soulful, inventive ideas for this oft-told tale, and that the audience is about to embark on a genuine cinematic treat.
The year is 1797, and the Bennet family, including Mr. (Donald Sutherland) and Mrs. (Brenda Blethyn), are looking to marry off their daughters Lydia (Jena Malone), Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), Mary (Talulah Riley), Kitty (Carey Mulligan), and Jane (a radiant Rosamund Pike) to any man of wealth and good standing. Hopes for a decent match come into their lives with the arrival of Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden, giving the difficult role a good shot), but Darcy's far too snobbish and cold to the girls, with the plain and outspoken Elizabeth dismissing him immediately. Yet, over the course of a year, as the sisters embark on their separate adventures in love and marriage, Darcy continually finds himself in Elizabeth's company, forcing the two to confront powerful feelings inside, while those around the couple (including Judi Dench) sharpen their knives in disapproval.
What makes "Pride" such an enduring work from author Jane Austen (one of the most adapted novels to television and the big screen in history) is the yearning for romance. Austen wrote of manners and disapproving personas, but resting underneath the period trappings of honor and class struggle was the quivering heart of a romantic. Filmmakers have come from near and far to adapt her novels, yet they all seem absurdly focused on the rigidity of the era and the inability for anyone to express themselves freely. What makes Austen come alive is a filmmaker who can dig deeper and extract the living, breathings emotions that are always pulsing underneath the stiff exteriors. It worked for Emma Thompson and Ang Lee in their sparkling 1995 feature, "Sense & Sensibility," and now it works for Joe Wright and his sumptuous "Pride & Prejudice."
In his big screen directing debut, Wright isn't concerned with packing the entire "Pride" plot into one tidy film. Screenwriter Deborah Moggach's version (with an uncredited polish by Emma Thompson) of the story is messy, with heaps of the original tale thrown out the window in an effort to pare down the tale to the essentials. Wright is going for the emotional curve of Elizabeth's journey, emphasizing the turbulent confused feelings about her true love, and her frustrations with the restrictions in her life. The events in the film come and go with alarming speed, which should annoy the purists, but it never poisons the flow of the picture. Wright clings so tightly to Elizabeth's soul-searching, often through outstanding and deliciously intimate camerawork, that he manages to freshen the material and make this considerably aged text feel young again. There's a celebration of love in "Pride" that draws the viewer right in, which similar examples of the genre often fail to accomplish.
As Elizabeth, Keira Knightley gives what can only be described as a revelatory performance. While it doesn't break her out of the snug corset mode she's accustomed to, Knightley makes Elizabeth into a heartfelt, lived-in character. Wright adores Knightley's face, and, by simply training his camera on her, Knightley is allowed to make the role a fascinatingly introspective one, with Elizabeth often stifling her true feelings in favor of prepared ones. Knightley is stunning in "Pride," giving a full-bodied reading of Austen's heroine, finding those crucial moments of doubt in her performance that connect the film's lengthy story together. In fact, the whole cast brings a lovely elegance and needed passion to their roles, which is exactly what this material deserves.
The VC-1 encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) quality on "Pride" is quite lovely, respecting the film's luscious cinematography with a suitably bright, active presentation. Detail is generally exceptional, bathing in the nuances of the striking locations and taking great care with the beauty of the Bennet girls, preserving their ethereal glow. Light grain protects the textures of the production design, and shadow detail remains consistent throughout, sustaining candlelit moods of contemplation. Colors explode through vibrant costume choices and sheer environmental awe (sunlight is almost pornographically brilliant), also giving atypical life to the mud-caked period realms and all their goopy qualities.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix opens with aforementioned splendor: a beautifully crisp English morning, teeming with chirps and the emotive opening section of Dario Marianelli's sublime score. The track is never overwhelming, staying within a boundary of warm perfection that allows the dialogue to register clearly, engaging the surrounds with outdoorsy atmospherics and general weather concern. Party sequences break the stillness with charming echo and crowd pronouncement, rumbling the bottom with some fancy footwork. Scoring cuts through the listening experience wonderfully, supporting the on-screen dramatics with an animated fidelity. English 2.0 and French DTS tracks are also included.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Joe Wright runs out of steam in a hurry, with the filmmaker having less and less to offer the listener as time runs on. For those inclined to hang on for the duration, Wright has some eloquent things to say on the film's pitch-perfect casting and stupendous locations, while also tossing around a few thoughts on the challenges of adapting a darling Jane Austen novel. Wright's an intelligent, passionate guy, but the commentary hits more dead spots than it should.
"Conversations with the Cast" (6:17) brings the actors outdoors to discuss their roles and how they interacted with one another. The scenery is excellent, a nice backdrop to a routine of praise from a talented group.
"Jane Austen: Ahead of her Time" (8:03) sits down with experts and production personalities to explore Austen's vivid world of characterizations and dreamy romantic wish fulfillment.
"A Bennet Family Portrait" (6:02) reveals how the cast bonded over games played on the set, creating a plausible family dynamic. A protective feeling shared by the actors is also explored, with the women looking out for one another as filming progressed.
"HBO First Look: 'Pride & Prejudice'" (13:08) is the meaty BTS featurette, even if it includes footage repeated from the rest of the BD supplements. Interviews with cast and crew provide a strong idea of intention with the film, which was made with the upmost respect for Austen and the genre. Also of interest is the ample amount of BTS footage, showing the crew slogging through the elements while the cast attempts to retain their poise.
"The Politics of 18th Century Dating" (4:24) has the cast and crew lamenting the modern dating scene of misinterpreted signals and clueless flirtation, eager to retain Austen's ideas and rules on romance.
"The Stately Homes of 'Pride & Prejudice'" (15:58) takes the viewer on a tour of the film's opulent locations, exploring the incredible sights and sounds.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
"Pride & Prejudice" has burned its way through so many incarnations, I can imagine the prospect of another trip to Darcyville just might not seem appetizing to many. Wright and his cast and crew have met the challenge and delivered a film that should please fans, but absolutely thrill those who've missed a little heart to go along with their tea and disapproval.