A quest to stay true to the book

SPOTLIGHT

Reading `Pride' was `vivid experience' for director Wright

Spotlight Joe Wright

The Buzz

November 11, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Over the phone from L.A.'s chic Chateau Marmont, Joe Wright, the 33-year-old British director of Pride & Prejudice, says he was stunned when he read Jane Austen's beloved 1813 book for the first time last year and discovered "it was a very subjective novel that told the story of a young woman, Elizabeth Bennet, from her point of view.

"When people talk of the earlier adaptations," Wright continues, "they always seem to talk about her reluctant suitor, Darcy. They refer to `the Laurence Olivier version' or `the Colin Firth version.' So it will be just fine with me if my production becomes known as `the Keira Knightley version.'"

How had Wright grown up in England and not read Pride and Prejudice in school? "I went to a bad school, Islington Green, in London. Islington became a refined area, but in the early '80s, when I was growing up, it certainly wasn't."

Still, Wright has showmanship, if not literature, in his blood. In 1959, after decades of touring through Africa and Europe, his parents built a 120-seat puppet theater on a bomb site in back of a temperance hall in Islington, and called it the Little Angel Marionette Theatre.

"My father would have liked me to be a puppeteer, but after school I would go to a drama club - we paid 10 pence a lesson for improvs and stuff - and I became very interested in actors and then in film." Wright even had a bit part in an expensive period film, Hugh Hudson's American Revolution epic Revolution (1985), which co-starred Wright's future Mr. Bennet, Donald Sutherland.

Being part of that fiasco at an early age might have tipped him toward making topical miniseries when he began directing. But his last and most celebrated miniseries was a historical epic, Charles II: The Power and the Passion, shown here as The Last King. It was a splashy, attention-getting, gritty period piece, "with lots of sex and violence," Wright says, "and handheld cameras." It convinced the producers who mounted the movie version of Bridget Jones's Diary, a contemporary riff on Pride and Prejudice, that Wright was the man to help them revitalize the original.

"I read the script to Pride & Prejudice completely fresh," says Wright. "I hadn't seen the TV versions or the prior film version. Then I went away and read the novel and was stunned by it - by how vivid my experience was of reading it."

His intent in shaping the final script and then casting and shooting it was to be faithful to "the excitement I felt, the vivid experience I had when I was reading the book."

He was shocked that the characters were either close to his age or younger - that Elizabeth was 20, and Darcy was 28. "Suddenly, the story made sense," he says. Wright could understand the mixture of misperceptions, biases and hauteur that cause Lizzy and Darcy to clash before they clinch when he saw them "as very young people experiencing these strong emotions for the very first time."

The idea of casting Knightley in the lead threw Wright at first. "I thought she might have been too beautiful. But when I met her I saw she had this scruffy tomboy in her, all spiky knees and elbows, and that, like Lizzy, she wouldn't conform to any preconceptions of what a young woman should be at any time. She's very independent and spirited and strong. And like me, she is dyslexic. At a very young age, she told me, she got the book on audiotape; at age 7 or 8 she would listen to it over and over again, and became obsessed by it. And when she did read it, in her midteens, she became obsessed again.

"She was nervous at first about taking it on, because when she read the book she felt she was Elizabeth, and she knew other young people would think they were Elizabeth. And it's true. I did a Q & A at USC and a girl came up to me afterward, a huge, avid fan of Austen, and said, `Thank you for making such a fantastic film of my book.' People do have a sense that it is theirs."

Wright's goal was to keep the love story central and to create a rougher, tougher social tapestry than in most Austen movies to heighten the humor and the drama. "I felt if I made Lizzie's life earthbound, if I kept her feet firmly in the mud, then her reaching for the stars - her romantic aspirations - would be even more heroic."

Without sounding defensive, Wright counters charges that cutting down the charming, duplicitous character of Wickham, the anti-Darcy, and picturing Darcy as a haunted, Byronic figure made the material too swoony. "I kept in my back pocket a quote from Austen that said she felt the book lacked shade. I felt I could supply darker shadows - and that if I did, I would have earned the right to lift off into romance."

Wright's Pride & Prejudice has landed the director another plum assignment. Next he'll be filming Ian McEwan's Atonement, winner of the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award - a novel that caused Esquire to call McEwan "our era's Jane Austen." For Wright, "It's nice to have a living writer to talk to about his work."

Both these projects have made Wright think a lot about happy endings.

"Pride & Prejudice is my first film with a happy ending, and Atonement is about happy endings, about the idea of wish fulfillment, about the possibility of atoning for the sins of your life. I used to feel that happy endings were a cop-out, but I've come to the belief that they're very important, not only for the audience but also for the storyteller. They serve a purpose. They give us something to hope for and aspire toward."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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