Pride and Prejudice opens as the 18th century is quickly drawing to a close, and so too are the fortunes of the Bennet family. The aging Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) and his wife (Brenda Blethyn) have sired five young daughters but did not produce a male heir, and the family estate is to be passed off to their cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) upon the patriarch's death accordingly. This gives even more urgency for the girls to not just marry, but, for the sake of their family, to marry well. Eldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) has her eyes squarely set on the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), who's recently arrived in town with his sister and his frigid friend Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden) in tow. Not reared under the heavy hand of a governess or raised to hold her tongue as a proper woman was expected to in those repressed days, Jane's outspoken sister Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) shrugs off the blunt, detached Mr. Darcy, despite some initial attraction. The seemingly idyllic match between Jane and Mr. Bingley is quickly derailed, and the more Lizzie learns about Mr. Darcy from the likes of his impoverished one-time childhood friend Wickham (Rupert Friend) and the many ways in which he's meddled in her family's lives, the more she grows to despise him. Still, there's an undeniable spark between the two of them, one that goes more intense as they encounter one another time and again, with seemingly everyone on the periphery (including a turn by Judi Dench as the gruff and proper Lady Catherine De Bourgh) repulsed by the idea of Darcy setting his sights on someone so far beneath his daunting social stature.
Virtually every aspect of this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice impresses. Joe Wright directs with a sure hand, both in terms of the lushly pastoral countryside and the immaculate estates in which the film is staged as well as the strength of the performances and the nimble screenplay. Pride and Prejudice owes a great deal to its instantly endearing cast, particularly Keira Knightley in a role that showcases her talent, charm, and versatility. It's a performance that requires Knightley to be smirkingly playful, self-assuredly tempermental in a way that's embraced by the audience and appalling to just about everyone else, and still emotionally vulnerable. Part of what has made Lizzie such an enduring character is that remarkable combination of strength, vivaciousness, and vulnerability, and Knightley pulls off this difficult combination beautifully. The role of Mr. Darcy doesn't allow Matthew Macfayden that same sort of incandescence, but he instantly establishes a compelling presence on-screen, one that makes Lizzie's mix of revulsion and fascination that much more convincing. The cast as a whole is extraordinary, with Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone standing out as two of the more memorable exports from these shores, along with Brenda Blethyn who gives the role of Mrs. Bennet a more richly drawn, believable depth than simply a harpy hellbent on seeing her daughters marry. Austen's timeless dialogue remains as sharp as ever, and as quickly as the screenplay blazes through the original text, the numerous subplots and many romantic entanglements it weaves avoid ever feeling confusing or something out of a daytime soap.
This most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has a warmth and intimacy that to my mind is often lost in period romances. Too many romances I've seen on-screen either feel like light, airy confections -- sugary-sweet but wholly insubstantial -- or bludgeon viewers over the head with syrupy strings and the "ours is a love of ages!" routine. Pride and Prejudice is handled with far more intelligence and affection. Between its convincing translation of the frustration and dizzying joy inexorable from the greatest loves, a tremendous set of performances, Jane Austen's sparkling wit, and sumptuous cinematography, director Joe Wright has infused a beloved novel more than two hundred years in age with an affectionate exuberance that suits the material seamlessly. Highly Recommended.
Video: Don't be turned off by the first couple of shots that open the film, which suffer from light speckling, a tinge of softness, and a gritty texture that's really not seen anywhere else throughout. No, Pride and Prejudice -- presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using Universal's preferred VC-1 codec -- looks amazing in high definition. The image doesn't have that sort of tactile, three dimensional pop, but that gives the stunning cinematography and vistas the appearance of a sort of pastoral painting, something that suits it perfectly. Its palette often leans towards a nostalgic golden glow in its interiors, emphasizing hues that are subdued yet still striking when Lizzie and the girls step out into the sunlight. There are moments when its colors leap off the screen -- a shot of the lush greenery and the incomparable blues outside of Darcy's estate, for instance -- and such sequences as Darcy and Lizzie's first emotional encounter in the rain look about as wonderful as anything I've seen in high definition.
Audio: I was suitably impressed by the lossless Dolby TrueHD audio as well. The music throughout the film in particular boasts a remarkably robust presence, and atmospherics and a generally strong sense of ambiance are also used to strong effect in every channel. The sound design is rather immersive, making frequent use of discrete sounds in each channel to most effectively flesh out the waning years of the 18th century. Bass response is better than expected as well, often because of the music but also courtesy of rainstorms and the thundering clatter of horse hooves. There are moments, particularly throughout the first ball, where some of the dialogue struggles just a bit more in the mix than I'd imagine was intended, but it's not a persistent problem, and the lines aren't so overwhelmed that it damages the impact of those scenes. Overall, very well done.
Subtitle streams and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtracks are also offered in both English and French.
Extras: This HD DVD of Pride and Prejudice includes all of the extras from the two-disc collector's edition DVD set, all of which are presented here in standard definition. A slew of featurettes make up most of the extras, although there's not much of note as far as that goes. "Conversations with the Cast" (6 min.) is charming, even if it doesn't amount to all that much more than the cast gushing about how wonderful the other actors are and how splended a time they had during filming. Also clocking in around six minutes is "A Bennet Family Portrait", which has director Joe Wright, screenwriter Deborah Moggach, and the cast speaking briefly about each of the characters in the film. The 13 minute HBO First Look featurette is slightly more intriguing than the overbearingly promotional making-of pieces that I'm used to, opening with a peek at the home where Jane Austen took an earlier work and reshaped it into Pride and Prejudice. Although there are some substantial comments in here, the best of them are recycled in the other extras, such as "The Politics of Dating". This featurette spends four and a half minutes on the stiflingly formal approach to courtship at this stage in the late 18th century, noting the importance of dancing as that was the only opportunity a prospective couple would have to engage in any sort of physical contact. The last of these featurettes is "Jane Austen, Ahead of Her Time" (8 min.), which offers a brief biography of the author before touching on her secretive writing process, her skill in writing about the domestic minutiae and human behavior she observed, and the appeal her novels have held for more than two full centuries, particularly to a film industry that's continually adapted and re-envisioned them. "Ahead of Her Time" is by far the most substantial of the featurettes on this disc.
A set of short featurettes are also provided, alongside individual photo galleries, for the five palatial estates where Pride and Prejudice was filmed: Chatsworth House, Wilton House, Burghley, Basildon Park, and Groombridge Place. These featurettes run just under 15 minutes in total.
I particularly enjoyed the audio commentary with director Joe Wright, who strikes a well-rounded balance between notes about how he approached Austen's material, observations about the cast and characters, and a steady stream of technical comments that budding filmmakers are sure to appreciate. His thirst for authenticity was something I found the most interesting -- that only one set was built for the entire film with every other sequence taking place in and around actual estates -- along with comments about Talulah Riley actually singing and playing on-camera and the thoughts and memories Carey Muligan dredged up to make herself cry (with varying degrees of success) in a funeral scene. Wright contrasts his adaptation from other attempts, specifically mentioning how his Mr. Collins differs from the pompous prick generally seen on screen, and his note about how period pieces invariably have numerous shots of people getting in and out of carriages earned a well-deserved laugh. From detailed notes about how 18th century women dealt with the urge to find a restroom in the middle of a ball to an offhand comment from a makeup artist that made him realize just how effective the film's climax is, Joe Wright's audio commentary is particularly well done and more than deserving of a listen.
Conclusion: These next-generation formats have struggled with moving copies of their catalog titles, and yet online sales of Pride and Prejudice have greatly outpaced quite a few of the usual action and sci-fi blockbusters. Part of this may be because gearheads are trying to involve their wives and girlfriends in their hobby -- or maybe even just using this most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's timeless novel of romance and self-discovery as an excuse to justify buying a shiny new HD DVD player. Some of these men may grouse at the idea of sitting through a two hour period romance the way I initially had, but they may be surprised by how engaging and exceptionally well-made Pride and Prejudice is. This HD DVD boasts an aural and visual presentation that's nearly as exceptional as the film it accompanies, and although many of the extras on the disc are light and insubstantial, the strength of director Joe Wright's audio commentary more than makes up for it. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.