Jane Austen's 1813 comedy-of-manners is transposed to a contempo American college town in director Andrew Black's surprisingly charming "Pride & Prejudice." Pic transforms its source material into a bubbly frolic, while adhering closely to Austen's essential themes. Careful grassroots marketing will be required for pic.

Recently the basis for a well-regarded BBC miniseries, Jane Austen’s 1813 comedy-of-manners is transposed to a contempo American college town in director Andrew Black’s splendidly, surprisingly charming “Pride & Prejudice.” Taking inspiration from Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (loosely based on Austen’s “Emma”), pic transforms its source material into a bubbly, pastel-colored frolic, while adhering closely to Austen’s essential themes. Bolstered by a strong cast of relative newcomers, pic is much smarter than the fare usually pitched at its targeted teen ticket-buyers. However, the lack of name thesps (save for Carmen Rasmusen in a cameo) means careful grassroots marketing will be required for pic, which opens in limited release on Dec. 5.

Modern-dress makeovers of “P & P” are all the rage nowadays, with writer Helen Fielding citing the book as the inspiration for her “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Bend It Like Beckham” director Gurinder Chadha currently at work on the Bollywood-style “Bride and Prejudice,” due next year.

This considerably lower-profile entry, cleverly scripted by Anne Black, Jason Faller and Katherine Swigert, actually represents the latest in a wave of independently-financed films made in and around the Utah area by predominately Mormon (or Latter-day Saints) filmmakers. (It’s even subtitled “a latter-day comedy” in the advertising.) However, whereas such niche LDS successes as “The Other Side of Heaven” and the films of Richard Dutcher have distinctly religious themes, “Pride & Prejudice” is a movie in which the characters just happen to be Mormon.

Most non-LDS audiences may not even detect the movie’s LDS content, and yet the substitution of a present-day Mormon setting for Austen’s Regency England is an inspired one, given the correlation between the two cultures’ emphasis on traditional values and, most importantly, marriage.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” Austen famously wrote at the beginning of her novel, before detailing the efforts of her plucky heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, to find the right such man. Likewise, the movie’s Elizabeth (Kam Heskin), a student and bookstore clerk with dreams of becoming a famous novelist, oft has marriage on her mind, though she is loathe to admit it.

The four other Bennet sisters from the book, have here been turned into Elizabeth’s housemates: sultry Argentinian Jane (Lucila Sola); perpetually squabbling Lydia (Kelly Stables) and Kitty (Nicole Hamilton); and the fatally shy, awkward Mary (Rainy Kerwin).

At a party thrown by the charmingly naive Charles (Ben Gourley), Elizabeth is rather disastrously introduced to Will Darcy (Orlando Seale), an expat Brit stopping through Utah on undisclosed business. It’s Will’s smug “pride” that, in turn, “prejudices” Elizabeth against him, although viewers may realize from the start these two are meant to be. But first Elizabeth settles for the company of with her erstwhile admirer (and inveterate gambler) Jack Wickham (Henry Maguire), as Will is pursued by Charles’ strapping sister, Caroline (Kara Holden).

That’s a lot of relationships for any movie (especially one running under two hours) to keep track of, but “Pride & Prejudice” does so nimbly. The screenwriters understand the story’s appeal lies in its chaotic structure, in the way that its many suitors and their potential mates are constantly pairing off and trading places as if part of an elaborate square dance.

Black, the Scottish-born director whose short film, “The Snell Show,” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, has a fine sense of pacing and timing; he keeps the movie spinning, so that no one part overstays its welcome.

The winning cast breathes new life into Austen’s characters. Spunky Heskin is responsive to the comic stimuli around her like Reese Witherspoon was in the first “Legally Blonde” pic (or, natch, Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless”). And like those actresses, she’s well-supported by an array of charismatic scene-stealers, including the irrepressibly emotive Sola, the hilariously repressed Kerwin and the acrobatically goofy Gourley, whose inspired physical-comedy antics dominate the movie’s Vegas-set climax.

Tech achievements are well-realized on a modest budget, with Travis Cline’s sunny lighting adding luster to the giddy pinks, purples and greens of Anne Black’s production design.

Pride & Prejudice

Production

An Excel Entertainment Group release of a Camera 40 production in association with Bestboy Pictures. Produced by Jason Faller. Executive producer, Daniel Shanthakumar. Co-producer, Kynan Griffin. Directed by Andrew Black. Screenplay, Anne Black, Jason Faller, Katherine Swigert, based on the novel by Jane Austen.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Travis Cline; editor, Alexander Vance; music, Ben Carson; production designer, Anne Black; sound (Dolby Digital), Rob Nyland. Reviewed at Ocean Avenue screening room, Santa Monica, Nov. 11, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Elizabeth Bennet - Kam Heskin Will Darcy - Orlando Seale Jane - Lucila Sola Lydia - Kelly Stables Kitty - Nicole Hamilton Mary - Rainy Kerwin Jack Wickham - Henry Maguire Charles Bingley - Ben Gourley Caroline Bingley - Kara Holden Collins - Hubbel Palmer Anna Darcy - Honor Bliss Charlotte - Carmen Rasmusen
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