Pride & Prejudice (2005)

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Pride and PrejudiceFor the fact that it remains one of the most universally popular books, Jane Austen’s deconstruction of 19th Century social politics has been the subject of surprisingly few direct filmic adaptions. Die hard fans generally proclaim the 1995 BBC mini-series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth to be the definite, though naturally a running-time of almost six hours does bring certain advantages in terms of authenticity and complexity that a feature film can never lay claim to. It was perhaps appropriate then that the reins on any new version should be given to a director with a background in television. To call the end product of Joe Wright’s labours accomplished would be an understatement, the film is both true to Austen’s original and contemporary, well able to hold its own against a multitude of British period costume dramas. And despite a few narks from a minority of Austen faithfuls, “Pride & Prejudice” did exceedingly well at the box office as well as walking off with four Oscar nominations.

Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has but one goal in life, namely to find suitable husbands for each of her five daughters in 19th Century England. Things shape up with the arrival of two wealthy neighbours, the amiable Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and the seemingly cold and distant Mr. Darcy (Matthew McFayden). There is an immediate attraction between the former and the eldest of the Bennet daughters Jane (Rosamund Pike) while animosities are nurtured between Darcy and our heroine, the free-spirited Elizabeth (Keira Knightley).  Donald Sutherland keeps an eye on proceedings as the indolent Mr. Bennet. The story with its countless twists and misunderstanding (the pride and the prejudice in other words) is well known, correct and present though significantly sped up. Several plot strands and characters have been shortened or omitted entirely but what is left is the heart of Jane Austen’s novel. The social interactions between the sexes and the subsequent and inevitable awkwardness are well conveyed throughout as is the judgemental nature of all the characters. The segments of action that have been introduced – consisting largely of horse riding, ambient locations and pathetic fallacy – flow nicely around the “sitting around” static nature of the novel. Deborah Moggach has crafted a screenplay that manages to keep the atmosphere light despite the fluctuating emotions and the film is constantly witty, sometimes overly so.

A great actress in the making, Keira Knightley is pitch perfect as Elizabeth both in looks and performance, outdoing Jennifer Ehle in both departments. Her confrontations with Darcy carry all the passion from the novel though you’ll have to be on your toes to catch every word, so fast do the syllables roll off her tongue. It is also noticeable that Knightley (whether through instruction or not one cannot tell) adds a distinctly modern touch to the character. Her behaviour and actions seem altogether more feminist than the period would have allowed but in terms of updating the character she succeeds very well. Every performance will reflect its time and here it is certainly no detriment. Newcomer McFayden isn’t quite as convincing: His Mr. Darcy focuses on the character’s restraint and awkwardness than on the (if only seeming) pride. He simply looks in need of a jolt to wake him up. The rest of the cast perform remarkably however from Blethyn, Sutherland and the gorgeous Pike to a hilarious turn by Tom Hollander as clergyman-in-search-of-wife Mr. Collins. Likewise the entire production is authentically designed and beautifully captured through the lens of Roman Osin and as always with these period films, the sumptuous costumes are a dream. The only other caveat is an alternative ending shown to U.S. audiences and available as an extra on the DVD which piles on the cheese that Wright had done so well to avoid throughout. Very likely this was pushed by the studio that did not consider the existing denouement a big enough emotional payoff. But really, not necessary.

Pride and Prejudice OSTEarning his first Oscar nomination is Italian composer Dario Marianelli. He provides a score that is on some levels predictable but certainly superior to most other soundtracks in the genre. Seamlessly incorporating some English folk songs and a piece by Henry Purcell into his original music, the soundtrack for “Pride & Prejudice” is an extremely enjoyable and relaxing listen. The main theme is conveyed in the opening track “Dawn” and features exquisite solos by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. A possible distraction for some listeners may be how the album breaks up the rhythm by inserting the lively dance music amongst the much more soothing underscore. Overall, Marianelli’s next score for Joe Wright would be the greater of the two but this score could well be taken as a great period score, on equal footing with much of Rachel Portman’s work.

“Atonement” two years later would prove Joe Wright’s masterpiece but “Pride & Prejudice” has much in its favour. The film should appeal to most sections of the Austen camp and to most viewers outside as well. At any rate it has no need to hide from the BBC version, and had it featured a better actor opposite Keira Knightley, it could very well have earned the highest marks.



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An Education (2009)

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An EducationA fine example of an unremarkable film that is greatly elevated by its cast, Lone Scherfig’s retelling of British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoirs received considerable attention during the 2009 awards season. Treading in the well-worn footsteps of classic coming-of-age drama, the film will no doubt be best remembered for the breakout performance of one Carey Mulligan, launching the career of a talent more mature in mind than in years, a welcome change from the Lindsay Lohans of this world. Onscreen for almost 100% of the film’s running time, her outstanding acting is what propels the film and helps it across several potholes that would otherwise threaten to derail proceedings. In this regard an Oscar nomination for Best Actress was more than deserved.

Set in 1960s London, “An Education” tells the story of teenage girl Jenny (Mulligan), with her whole life built on schoolwork, instituted by her strict yet socially awkward father (Alfred Molina) who wants his daughter to attend Oxford University. Jenny’s fate takes a dramatic turn however when she meets the charming and much older David (Peter Sarsgaard). He presents to her an alluring if dangerous choice, offering a life of fun, escape, and introduced her to stylish couple Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike respectively), art, dinner clubs and, it seems, a much fuller life. Flouting her studies, her teacher (Olivia Williams) and her Oxford application, Jenny embraces this lifestyle, entranced by David’s endless riches and charms while increasingly aware that she is also being led into a world of deception, secrets and lies. Nick Hornby’s screenplay tries very hard to avoid the creepy images of a man taking advantage of a much younger girl and successfully manages this through long portions of the plot. And while it must ultimately confront the viewer with this truth, the film always lets you forget this before bringing the subject roughly into the foreground again. The social awkwardness penetrates all aspects of the characters however from the father – Alfred Molina, sublime as ever – who admires David almost as much as Jenny, to Rosamund Pike’s dim blonde who lives in a dream, albeit a first-class one.

As successfully as it presents these social mores however, “An Education” has nothing fresh to offer an old genre. In particular in the final third the film increasingly becomes an exercise at checking off all the cliches it can. Even viewers not well versed in these kind of dramas will be able to see where its going from the outset and not once does Scherfig make an attempt to step off this well-trodden path. There is no intent to surprise the audience, director and screenwriter satisfied to see its predictable conclusion through. Whether it’s a lack of ideas or simple laziness on their part we shall never know but the film’s sense of accomplishment is not as educating as it thinks itself to be. That said, “An Education” is more than bearable, held together Carey Mulligan in particular but by the whole cast, including a late appearance by the venerable Emma Thompson, yet another instance of fine British ensemble casting. For Dominic Cooper, the mysterious Danny allows him to make the leap from “Mamma-Mia” hunk to more serious dramatic actor. But really it’s crystal clear that the entire film is Carey Mulligan’s show. Her flowering Jenny is more than a little feisty but in the more reflective scenes she shows extreme maturity as an actress and it shows she is “the one” for a new generation of actors, a role that will see her becoming the next Emma Thompson or even, eventually, the next Judy Dench.

An Education OSTMuch in keeping with “An Education’s” predictable nature is its original score provided by Paul Englishby. By all means pleasant, the score will however go unnoticed by most viewers, buried as it is, several miles beneath a layering of period songs. The songs which also dominate the soundtrack, are of course important in establishing the tone for the the film’s 1960s setting but it also means that Englishby’s contribution runs to just over ten minutes on the album. Taking a lead from Jenny’s musicianship in the film, the composer does integrate the cello into his music and the score is otherwise largely lead by a conservatively classic ensemble of strings, woodwinds and solo piano. In a way the score is at odds with the songs, representing perhaps the side of Jenny that is old-fashioned and resulting from the influence of her parents while the songs represent her more carefree and naive nature. It’s an interesting concept but leads to a very disjointed album experience with several score cues mixed in between the songs instead of forming the end of the album. Thus, it’s at best a pretty if average effort.

At the hands of a less-experienced and talented cast, “An Education” would have had its flaws more pointedly exposed. As it is, the film remains an enjoyable if very unsurprising effort that will make for relatively light viewing. But we must be extremely thankful to its makers for introducing us to the great Carey Mulligan.



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The King’s Speech (2010)

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Leading all the others with 12 nominations, Tom Hooper’s film telling the story of Britain’s previous monarch King George VI, became a somewhat surprising Oscar front-runner. Its award success translated into a very healthy international theatre run and considerable box-office returns for what is after all a small and very definite, classic British drama. The tale of perseverance over disability as well as the period setting is of course exactly the type of genre the Academy loves to reward but to bash “The King’s Speech” on those grounds would be grossly unfair and a particular injustice to the performances of its central players. As with Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” four years earlier, the film is extremely accomplished in its look and feel, exuding visual, technical and atmospheric perfection from every frame, an art for which British films are rightly successful again and again.

In the late 1930s, Albert Duke of York (Colin Firth) is required to speak at public functions and more frequently over the new wireless radio technology to his people. However, the Prince struggles with a persistent stammer which, although not a problem in his daily life, renders him speechless at the most crucial of moments. Desperate after the failure of every known treatment, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to the unconventional methods and highly eccentric personality of Lionel Logue played by Geoffrey Rush. Controversial from the outset and much to Albert’s reluctance (and indeed lack of self-belief), Logue sets about curing the disability. The relationship of the two wildly different men will be tested not only by the Prince’s imminent ascension to the throne of England as King George VI but by the looming World War II when the King will have to rally his people through speechmaking. As these period drama go, and in terms of plot the screenplay written by David Seidler never strays far from its presumed path, instead working the means for the cast to display their creativity. A perversion of humour perhaps, but the entirety of “The King’s Speech” is extraordinarily witty, its dialogues pitch perfect and in the hands of Tom Hooper, result in a coherent flow of storytelling that is quietly brilliant and too often absent in the scripts that make the rounds in Hollywood today.

In the follow-up hype, most praise was lauded upon the central performance of Colin Firth who, for the second year running (after “A Single Man”) churned out Oscar-worthy acting, thus firmly evolving from typecast Hugh Grant-esque bumble to serious character actor. Without any doubt, the success of the film hinges largely on his superb portrayal. Not only is his voice remarkably similar to the real monarch’s, his inability to articulate himself and frequent angry outbursts go far beyond a simple if sympathetic recreation but enthrals us and has us willing the formation of every strained syllable. Not granted as much mention, but equally superb is Geoffrey Rush in a role that is (take note Academy) as vital and leading as Firth’s. Though there are traces of his Barbossa to be found in Rush’s comic and out-of-place methods and quirks (particularly as an aspiring actor in the film), it is ultimately his off-beat charm that may seem incredulous but is key to holding proceedings on track. Other great British character actors line the supporting positions: Helena Bonham Carter generally enriches every part she plays but this is one of her best in years. Bit parts by Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon as Kings Edward VIII and George V respectively add further gravitas to the acting ensemble. Less convincing is Timothy Spall utilised as a purely comic Winston Churchill who, while providing some laughs, lacks the dramatic weight possessed by the other characters. A little lost amongst all the acting focus will be the cinematography, art-direction and costume design, all perfect to the last. As an exercise in stylistic accuracy, it’s every cinephile’s dream.

It’s ironic perhaps that a Frenchman has become the expert at scoring British films like “The King’s Speech” but Alexandre Desplat has once again delivered some of his trademark music to underline the film. Always incredibly elegant in his use of the orchestra, the composer has certainly fulfilled expectations if not exceeded them, utilising a familiar sparse approach of soft strings and classically inclined piano. All of his scores are incredibly hard to fault for their sheer beauty even if they do lack the sort of thematic development that constitutes a truly great score. Much publicised were his efforts to obtain the original 1930s royal microphones which do lend the soundtrack great authenticity. However, Desplat never strays from his comfort zone, leaving it instead to the classical maestros, Brahms, Mozart and particularly Beethoven to underscore the most pivotal scenes in the film (some of which is source music). On the album as well, it’s the classical pieces that will leave a mark on the listener. It’s a well-rounded combination but it would have been much more interesting to see the composer tackle these great moments himself and deliver more of the haunting beauty heard in his effort for “Twilight: New Moon,” a film that did not deserve such elegance.

Predictable at face value, “The King’s Speech” succeeds through it’s clever screenplay and the performances of its entire cast. Firth is outstanding but no more so than Geoffrey Rush. Together, this makes for a film that you will want to see several times over to fully appreciate. Highly recommended.



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Amadeus (1984)


AmadeusPerhaps the most important thing to know about Peter Shaffer’s film adaptation of his own stage-play “Amadeus” is that it’s a work of fiction, not a biography. And even though it’s often billed as an outrageous comedy, the film is on fact one of the most fascinating portrayals of genius, madness, disillusionment, god and ultimately psychological murder. Found after an attempted suicide in his Viennese lodgings, composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the tale of the child prodigy he both loved and hated: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his rise through the ranks at court and his ultimate demise at the hands of both a Salieri consumed by jealousy and himself.

Director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) has once again created a masterpiece of cinema, down to every last detail. Filmed in his homeland, Prague before the fall of the iron curtain looks remarkably like 18th Century Vienna, the opera sequences recreated with the utmost care (a visit to the IMDb trivia page is advised), the sumptuous costumes, everything. Yet Forman gives everything a slightly mad edge, for example Mozart’s demented behaviour and wigs clashing, or the fact he let the actors keep their American accents, thus lifting it above the usual period fare and making it accessible to all.

Tom Hulce as Mozart is brilliantly eccentric as he stumbles around the palaces of the musical city with a giddy, lunatic giggle and immodest strut of a man endowed with talent that seems to infuriate only his rival Salieri. It’s a performance that in any other film would seem completely out of place. And even so, for all his wit, there’s a vulnerably naive side to the character also, truly believing up to the very end that Salieri is his only friend among his composer colleagues. But it’s F. Murray Abraham’s embittered Salieri who steals the show in the film’s much darker parts. He is a man working for god, offering to him his chastity in thankfulness for his great talents, only to see himself diminished in the face of “That giggling dirty-minded creature I had just seen, crawling on the floor!” He questions why god would use a man such as this as his instrument on earth, making a mediocrity of Salieri. Should not he, the man devoted to god’s work be rewarded justly? Thus, consumed by hate he plot’s to destroy this “creature.” Abraham quite rightly won an Oscar for his performance, it’s a role he will always be remembered for and it’s surprising that he was not able to turn this into a major career in Hollywood.

The film also features some excellent turns by supporting characters, notably Jeffrey Jones as the “musical” Kaiser Josef II, an enthusiastic but tone-deaf music lover with fabulous “Hm-hm” quirks. His associates Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay) and Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines in his last role) are excellent also as are the Mozarts, Constanze and Leopold (Elizabeth Berridge and Roy Dotrice). Simon Callow who played Mozart in the original stage-play returns here as Schikaneder who commissions Mozart’s last opera “The Magic Flute.” Put together, this forms an awesome screen presence and every second of film is overflowing with excellence. Forman has put together a Director’s Cut which is available on DVD and adds almost 30 more minutes to already long running time but it’s worth it. Included here are scenes where Salieri bows to lust, sexually molesting Constanze but can find no fulfilment in doing so, as well as several extended scenes.

Amadeus OSTThe music. Well, what can I say, it’s Mozart? The task of choosing from over 600 works fell to Sir Neville Mariner and his “Academy of St. Martin in the Fields” who insisted that no note of the composer’s be altered. Undoubtedly this has led Forman to cut some of his scenes to the music such as the opening, set to the first movement of Symphony No 25 or the Requiem scoring session between Mozart and Salieri is magnificently realised. It is also worth noting that all the actors who are seen to play the piano, learned it for real. No fancy special effects here! There have been many versions of the soundtrack released over time but the most definitive of these is possibly a double disc offering from Fantasy Records that was released to coincide with the Director’s Cut. For real Mozart lovers these will probably be little more than “best-of” compilations and may not add anything to your collection. Still, as far as music goes this is as good as you’re going to get.

“Amadeus” remains as one of the few good things that ever came out of the 80s and has value both for music and film lovers. Not for it’s historical accuracy but for its ways of giving that period dust a good wash with great comedy and serious contemplative material to chew on. For that alone you should see it. “Well, there it is!”



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