Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pride and Prejudice - Movie Review

Adapting one of the most beloved romantic novels of all time is strewn with dangerous pitfalls. Any misstep guarantees creative abyss. This adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" not only sidesteps all those pitfalls but succeeds commendably in giving one of the best romantic comedies of the year.

The film launches the proceedings with great verve and energy, and zips past for the first 45 minutes. Traditional English society doesn't give itself to this type of energetic story-telling. Most of the actions, however passionately motivated they may be, are clothed in impeccable, stifling manners and seemingly innocuous utterances. Violence and action in such settings occurs not in the foreground. The movie breaks all these barriers and finds a way to unfold with breakneck pace and urgency. Watch the ballroom scene, where it zooms directly into the action conveying such immediacy and intimacy with the characters.

Another achievement is recreating the period settings. The film has a impeccable sense of space and time. The claustrophobic over decorated interiors of the Bennet's, the expansive country locales, farm houses- all aiding the story-telling, without any intrusion.

Recreating legendary characters is a high-risk, high-payoff endeavor. Kiera Knightley ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), contrary to her previous uninspired work, pulls-off playing Elizabeth Bennet with great aplomb. She has enough range and charisma to support her role. The rub is Matthew McFadyen, who plays Mr. Darcy. Instead of portraying a character who personifies emotional and class conflict, he looks like a moody puppy with under-developed social skills.

The real pleasure is watching the supporting characters in action. Judy Dench, with a hairdo resembling a raging ball of fire, has mastered the art of stealing the movie even if she has minimal screen time. Brenda Blethyn, Rosamund Pike (the bond girl from "Die Another Day"), and Jena Malone- all turn in worthy performances. The most interesting character in the film is Mr. Bennet. Donald Sutherland has the most fun playing this character. He is man who has learned to live with contradictions. He is not very pleased with his wife's actions, but still very much loves her. Watch him in the ballroom scene, in the background, where when his wife stands close to him, he slyly turns towards her and ruffles his nose in the feathers in his wife's hat. This action says volumes. This old man is practical enough to play along with the societal requirements, but has preserved enough of the child in him, to give in to such romantic impulses.

Unlike other romantic comedies, this film doesn't end with the lovers proclaiming their love for each other. It follows the emotional arc of the story to its completion by placing at the end, the scene where Mr. Bennet gives his consent to his daughter's wedding. This scene glows with such understanding, warmth and tenderness, it results in one of the most endearing father-daughter conversations in film.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Shopgirl - Movie Review

Steve Martin wrote the screenplay of "Shopgirl", based on his novella, and stars in the lead role in the film. This film is an intimate character study involving mainly three characters. The majority of the film involves watching one or two of these characters on screen. A film so sparsely populated with characters and events, packs so much drama, suspense, heartbreak and laughs that could rival films produced with twenty times its budget.

The opening scenes of the film should be prescribed as mandatory coursework in film schools for what a good screenplay should be. Just by stringing three shots together, at the beginning of the film, the screenplay says all that needs to be said about Claire Danes' character. These three shots eliminate what could have been 10 minutes of explanatory screenplay. Mirabelle (Danes) has moved to Los Angeles from Vermont, to start her life afresh. She works in the glove section of a departmental store, lives alone, draws in her spare time and has a non-existent social life. She meets two men in succession, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) a struggling artist who also works in an audio equipment shop, and Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a millionaire, who made his millions in the computer business, and shuttles between his palatial homes in LA and Seattle, in a private jet.

Her dates with Jeremy are one strange encounter after other. But these experiences are endearing enough for her go through with it. Jeremy is not the smoothest operator in town, but at least he is an original. Then the movie moves into the core relationship in the movie, that between Mirabelle and Ray Porter. Ray is suave, sophisticated, and says and does exactly what is expected of him. It is as though he has pre-programed himself in life, irrespective of whom or what he encounters. The arc of this relationship closely resembles the old guy/ young girl syndrome between Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan"- where the old guy is so sure of himself and manipulates the young girl so thoroughly, that at the end, when he realizes that what he had was the real thing, it is too late. He has manipulated himself out of happiness.

The film showcases strong performance from all three lead actors. Steve Martin morphs into his character seamlessly. His performance looks like it has been drained out of all emotions and inflections - this is not lack of effort, it is a calculatedly achieved minimum, a supreme contribution. Even the minor characters are fully drawn and well fleshed out (Mirabelle's father, though he appears in exactly two scenes, stays with us). There are two technical contributions that needs to be mentioned. First, the set design of the exterior of Mirabelle's house- the design of the stairs and positioning of the apartment entrance adds a subtle layer to the proceedings and at the same time suggesting a virtual dead-end for the character. Second, the make-up for Bridgette Wilson-Sampras' character- it silently proclaims the moral disrepute of the character.