Austentatious Debut

Joe Wright Directs Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in
Features

"I was just admiring the general splendor," says Elizabeth Bennet, moving starry-eyed but still stately through the fine feathers and fancy-ball fixings of Netherfield Park, a neighboring manse socially light years removed from her own highly humbled dwellings.

Lizzie is not likely to be alone in her awe of the rustic Regency spectacles that decorate and animate Pride & Prejudice, the new rendering of Jane Austen's classic which debuts on Nov. 18 from Focus Features. Audiences are apt to agree with her, although director Joe Wright took great pains to offset "the general splendor" of England at the end of the 18th century with rough-edged realism.

It's the Wright move, making the movie more of an authentic replica of Austen's milieu than a beautified view of a time remembered. Mixing both worlds, he comes across in his film bow as a ground-level David Lean, with a romanticism persisting despite the reality.

"There's an element of the story that compelled me to make the movie very earthbound," he admits. "If it's earthbound, I thought, then Elizabeth's aspirations for romantic love would be all the more divine and beautiful and heroic. She has her feet in the mud, but she's reaching for the stars. And that seemed to fit-at least it worked in my head."

To catch the raw and ravishing look he wanted, Wright reeled off a lot of period films during the development of the project. In addition to the Austens that exist on film (Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, Douglas McGrath's Emma, Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park and Roger Michell's Persuasion-excluding, of course, Clueless, Amy Heckerling's modern-dress Emma), he checked out flicks of similar vintage from Thomas Hardy (Roman Polanski's Tess and John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd).

The latter, he says, influenced him the most and is most responsible for the aggressively agrarian feel of his film. "I think Far from the Madding Crowd is very real and very honest-and it is quite romantic as well-so it was the biggest influence reference for me."

Pointedly, he avoided all the TV mini-series made of Pride and Prejudice-there are, incredibly, five, including a 300-minute version that starred Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth a decade ago. But he did see the one feature-length version made: the facile 65-year-old fast-read that Robert Z. Leonard directed within the cozy confines of MGM's Culver City studio. In that Pride and Prejudice, the emphasis was on the former. Greer Garson as Elizabeth hardly went slumming into that good night, effectively deflecting any class snobbery that came her way because of her ordinary station in life, and Laurence Olivier did her handsome, haughty Mr. Darcy with his dark-and-brooding Heathcliff leftovers.

Almost all of the above were cast with young lovers a tad long in the tooth, and Wright was determined not to make the same mistake. "When I interviewed for the job of directing this, one of the things I told the Working Title executives was that I wanted to cast the characters at the ages Jane Austen wrote them. These are very young people experiencing these emotions for the very first time, and this don't make sense to me if they're played by Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in their 30s. These characters don't quite understand what they're feeling for this other person, so they have to be young."

Wright picked Keira Knightley, 20 (the exact age of Elizabeth), and Matthew MacFadyen, 29 (only one year older than Darcy). He was a more obvious choice than she, says the director: "I've been a huge fan of Matthew's TV work [Wuthering Heights, Perfect Strangers], so I was very keen to use him, but Keira I thought originally might be too beautiful for the role. Then, I went to meet her-in Toronto, where she was filming The Jacket. We were out very late one night in this little dark basement bar at her hotel, and I discovered that she was this strange tomboy, a scruffy independent spirit who was not going to say what she thought you wanted her to say. She was going to say exactly what she thought. That-and her humor-made her a perfect Elizabeth. Her spirit won me over."

In roles that were played in 1940 by the illustrious likes of Edmund Gwenn, Mary Boland, Melville Cooper and Edna May Oliver, Wright chose latter-day lights like Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Tom Hollander for Elizabeth's pompous prig of a suitor and Judi Dench for Darcy's formidable aunt.

"When I saw Donald in Cold Mountain," recalls Wright, "it suddenly occurred to me that here was someone who could access the tenderest emotions, and I needed someone to do that for the last scene. Also, he has an immense strength, and I needed a man who could deal with those six women in that house." Like Tevye, Sutherland's Mr. Bennet has five marriageable but unmanageable daughters on his hands, all with minds of their own.

Matrimony is the major priority in his household because of an arcane English law that says if he dies without a male heir, the property would go to a distant cousin who would be perfectly within his rights to take over the place and turn the widow and her brood out. This consideration brings some soft-focused sympathy to Mrs. Bennet, who is forever clearing rooms so a proposal of marriage might occur. Boland played her (rather memorably) with broad-stroked abandon, but Blethyn opted for understandable hysteria.

"That part," says Wright, "is a very difficult character to play because she can slip into caricature. Brenda played Mrs. Bennet as the only one who really understands the jeopardy that her daughters are in and is completely guided by motherly love for her children-and that's why she acts the way she does. It was, I think, the perfect choice."

Hollander, currently being talked up for a supporting Oscar nomination for this, has a high old time of it playing Mr. Collins, the obnoxious clergyman who courts Elizabeth before sighting her best friend, Charlotte Lucas (an excellent Claudie Blakley), a homely spinster only too happy to settle without the romantic flourishes. "I think Mr. Collins is in a difficult position. He doesn't sit easily in himself. I just felt that in everything I've always done-as in life-there are no goodies or baddies, only flawed individuals. And Mr. Collins isn't a baddie. He's just a bit confused about how to behave. He can't understand why people don't respect him in the way that he thinks he should be respected. But he is also capable of love, and I am very pleased that, when he and Charlotte marry, we made the decision that they would have an okay marriage. Yeah, they won't be able to tell each other the deepest secrets of their hearts, but at the same time they will be all right."

Dame Judi's cameo came up on Wright's first day directing his first feature-talk about a baptism by fire!-but he came to that day from a good place. Only 33, he studied fine art in arts school, with a view to making films, and spent the past six years in television, directing four mini-series (The Last King, Nature Boy, Bodily Harm and Bob & Rose).

To the obvious question of which is easier-mini-series or features-he gives the edge to the latter. "The schedules one gets in television are extremely demanding. The last piece of television I did, I had 12 weeks to shoot four hours of television. With this, I had 13 weeks to shoot two hours. But the demands that I put on myself are just as difficult."

The Last King had a speaking cast of 80, so it's not surprising his favorite scene in Pride & Prejudice was the one Elizabeth Bennet liked so much in Paragraph One-the Netherfield Park ball. Wielding a Steadicam, he joins the dance and gets lost in the delirious rush and swirl of extras. "That long shot where the Steadicam moves among all those people was originally written in the script as a montage. I had one day to shoot it, and I knew the sequence probably would have required over 30 set-ups and I probably wouldn't achieve all those set-ups, so I rehearsed that shot all day and gave myself two hours to shoot it."

That scene also summarizes Wright's take on the epoch he is showing us, both in long-shot and in closeup. "I tried to research the overall political and social landscape of the period. I'm fascinated by the fact that the French Revolution, for example, caused an atmosphere among the British aristocracy of fear. Very wisely, instead of segregating themselves from the lower classes, they decided to assimilate themselves with the lower classes. Therefore, you get people like Darcy coming to Assembly Room dances. I find it fascinating the way those kinds of great political events have an effect on individual lives.

"But I also like the minutiae, the actual details of everyday life. Say you're giving a ball at your house, and 500 people are coming and you don't have sanitary systems-you have chamber pots-so I would become obsessed with questions like 'How do you supply chamber pots for 500 people?' 'How do the guests go to the lavatory?' We discovered that they didn't. Basically, the men would go down and pee in the bushes, as they often do now, but women would spend the whole day taking diuretics to stop themselves from going to the toilet. When they couldn't wait any longer, that was the end of their night.

"The source dictated such attention to watch people very carefully. When I was making the film, I was thinking about the equivalent in film grammar, and it occurred to me that close-ups and observing those details might hopefully give you a sense of Austen's writing. We put so much love into making this film. I hope that audiences recognize that and will be energized by it."