Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Why Kiera Knightley Should Be Purchased By The National Trust

Review: Pride and Prejudice.

So, I’m in the Rio cinema in Dalston – possibly the most multi-cultural place in the world - and everyone here is white and middle class. Outside, the cars on Kingsland Road throb past with their neon glow and the kebab shops light up the street and yet, in here, all you can hear is the sound of horses hooves on cobbles and silver spoons clinking on china. The thought occurs: why would anyone want to make a film like this now? Isn’t it about as relevant as Quinlan Terry’s houses or Viscount Linley’s furniture? Well, I happen to have a soft spot for Quinlan Terry, but still, the whole idea of period drama is rather worrying: a curious fixation on a world of restrictive manners and social segregation. Is this what we should be thinking about in 2005?

Then there is the film itself. The whole thing is bathed in a honeyed autumnal glow. It begins with the sun rising over a misty swathe of English countryside and gets progressively more picturesque after that. This film is as stylistically intense as Sin City. The quality of light in it was so seductive that after it I felt like hiring a lighting crew to follow me around. What’s it all about? Well, basically, there’s the Bennet family who are farm people, a bit coarse but basically good sorts. They have five daughters and no son or heir, so the house and farm are due to be given over to a male cousin, who is, as Jane Austen put it, a bit of a knob. The father is an amiably sardonic farmer. The mother is a petty bourgeois social climber obsessed with marrying off her daughters to the highest bidders. The eldest daughter Jane is beautiful, honest and shy. The second eldest Elizabeth is beautiful, honest and sharp. Into this scenario rides Mr D’Arcy, an impossibly wealthy bachelor, and his friend, the only slightly less wealthy Mr Bigley. The Bennets and the two bachelors meet at the village disco – sorry, local dance - where Mr Bigley promptly falls in love with Jane, and Mr D’arcy and Elizabeth begin their tortuous and acerbic on-off courtship.

Most of the action – if that is the right word – takes place within a succession of house interiors where the manners are adjusted subtly according to location. The Bennet’s house is filmed in a succession of painterly scenes, somewhere between Breugel, Pieter de Hooch and the sort of sentimental pictures of young children chasing chickens that the Victorians used to hang in their nurseries. Pigs waddle in and out of shot, mud squelches underfoot and there is a rich choreography of honest farm folk and quacking wild fowl. The house, a mix of Queen Anne and Georgian with classical embellishment is lovingly pictured in all its flaking and scuffed glory: a sign presumably of both the Bennet’s near impoverishment and of our heroine Elizabeth’s straightforward honesty. Beginning with the girlish honesty of Jane and Elizabeth’s conversations at home, social interaction becomes ever more elliptical and strained as they move through a succession of ever grander residences. Basically, the posher the house the more mean spirited the people living in it. Except for D’Arcy who has the grandest house but also the best taste. In one scene, Elizabeth wanders through his copious hallways, her eyes lingering over the suggestive physicality of a series of Grecian statues. She is clearly the only other person in the film capable of appreciating such beauty.

Away from the claustrophobic civility of the interiors, Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for walking is seen as evidence of her free spirit. The countryside is depicted as free and natural – a naturalness, of course, that is mediated through the whole biscuit tin and tea towel world of the English picturesque tradition. When the camera is not focusing on the all round loveliness of the English landscape, it is focusing on the all round loveliness of Kiera Knightly. Her character is, of course, the moral heart of the story, showing that honesty and depth will win out over frippery and snobbishness. But, appropriately, her face is always perfectly made up, her ‘kohled’ eyes and flawless skin as ‘natural’ as the perfect countryside behind her.

Always a sucker for shots of rolling hills accompanied by swirling classical music, and entranced by Knightley’s triumphant goodness, I was utterly seduced by it all. Coming out, Kingsland Road was something of a shock. But, you know, in a good way.

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