Elizabeth Bennett is not a giggler. The heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is quick-witted and headstrong, capable of being charming and even playful but more known for sharply speaking her mind, even if it does ruin the mood. She’ll smile, she’ll laugh, but under no circumstances will Elizabeth titter like a schoolgirl.
Unless, that is, she’s being played by Keira Knightley. Straight from her miscasting as a bloodthirsty tough in Domino, Knightley is charged with another girl-power portrayal in British director Joe Wright’s version of the early-19th-century classic. And though she’s much better suited to this role than her last, Knightley’s dippy interpretation of Elizabeth undercuts the strength and appeal of Austen’s character—and therefore the love/hate romance at the novel’s center.
It doesn’t help that this seems to be the 100th recent retelling of the story. Actually, it’s only the second direct adaptation in 10 years—the first being the BBC’s acclaimed five-hour television series, aired in the United States in 1996—though the two Bridget Jones movies and last year’s Bride & Prejudice also recycled Austen’s characters and plot. Audience members who’ve grown weary of the protracted dance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) will probably find it difficult to muster any renewed interest with Knightley taking the lead.
First-time feature writer Deborah Moggach pared Austen’s complex tale to just over two hours, lessening the class conflicts and virtually ignoring some subplots, most glaringly Elizabeth’s flirtation with Lt. George Wickham (Rupert Friend). She also time-trips the story from 1813, the year of Pride and Prejudice’s publication, back to 1797, the year Austen began writing the book. The big picture, however, remains the same: Hysterical mother hen Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn) wants to get each of her five daughters married off, preferably to someone wealthy. When news that the rich Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) is coming to town, the sisters go batshit—their squeals get dangerously close to being something only dogs can hear—and put on their finery and happy faces in hope of attracting his attention at a ball. When the eldest and prettiest daughter, Jane (Rosamund Pike), does just that, Elizabeth tries to make nice with Bingley’s scowling friend Darcy—and gets shut down. But because of Jane and Bingley’s deepening romance, the now-antagonistic pair are destined to keep running into each other, with Elizabeth acting all quippy and critical and Darcy, well, scowling some more.
Seemingly angry instead of aloof, MacFadyen’s Darcy is a one-note character—which makes his later declaration of ardor for Elizabeth rather unbelievable. The flip side, of course, is that he’s hardly the kind of guy who would capture Elizabeth’s attention. That blushing twitter when she catches Darcy’s eye at the ball fades during their first frosty conversation, and there’s never any demonstration of how he goes from irritating to intriguing.
Bingley, too, is mischaracterized, though Woods’ portrayal of him as a cheery dope at least provides some comic relief. There are other entertaining depictions, as well: Blethyn’s chirpy Mrs. Bennett is overbearing and unapologetic in her single-minded goal, countered by Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennett, who’s content to linger in the background of this close-knit, chatter-filled household but occasionally serves as a slightly eye-rolling voice of reason. Among the sisters, Pike is lovely and demure as Jane, and if 15-year-old Lydia, who ends up running off with Wickham, is supposed to be brash and annoying, well, Jena Malone nailed it. Also sharp in their small roles are Tom Hollander as the unpleasant Mr. Collins, who’s to inherit the Bennett home and would like one of the daughters to come with it, and Judi Dench, who bitches it up as Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg.
The look of Pride & Prejudice is also impressive, with cinematographer Roman Osin lending lushness to the film’s outdoor scenes, from the dewy opening sunrise to the many rainstorms Elizabeth gets caught in. And Wright’s preference for long tracking shots, the most remarkable being an unhurried, room-to-room observation of the tiny dramas at a party, adds the grace that his film’s protagonist lacks. Such a pity, then, that Pride & Prejudice’s love story is—to be fair to Knightley—mishandled by everyone involved. Even Jane Austen would have giggled at a Pride and Prejudice that culminates not in a marriage but in moony-eyed cooing on a dock.
The siblings in Zathura aren’t quite as fond of each other as the Bennett sisters are. Danny, the youngest at 6 and three-quarters, laments that he’s not as good as his older brother at such things as playing catch. Walter, 10, agrees that Danny sucks in general, and constantly antagonizes him by calling him a baby. Teenage Lisa, meanwhile, prefers to ignore both brothers, sleeping into the afternoon with headphones on even when Dad asks her to watch them. Ultimately, though, this is a story about love—with robots, reptilian monsters, and unfriendly spaceships that try to shoot the kids’ home into oblivion.
Zathura is author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg’s third book to be adapted to film, after 1995’s cool but slight Jumanji and last year’s disastrous Polar Express. Mercifully, Zathura’s big-screen version is closer to the former. The story, adapted by John Kamps and War of the Worlds scripter David Koepp, is pretty similar to Jumanji’s: After the kids’ father (Tim Robbins) steps out for a while, Danny (Jonah Bobo) finds a weird game in the basement of Dad’s creaky post-divorce home. He winds his discovery up with a key and then presses a red button, which spins a counter and makes a tiny spaceship move the corresponding number of steps on the board’s swirly path. Also, a card pops out of a slot. “Meteor shower, take evasive action,” it reads. Walter (Josh Hutcherson) turns away from the TV just long enough to tell Danny what “evasive” means before fiery meteors start destroying the living room.
The onslaught, orchestrated with frightening intensity by director Jon Favreau, isn’t the only problem the boys have: When they open the front door, they discover they’re out in space. Frantic pleas for help from Lisa (Kristen Stewart) are dismissed, and the next spin of the game’s dial freezes both Sis and the upstairs bathroom as she’s making her way to the shower. When a card pops out saying, “You are visited by Zorgons,” you know it’s not going to be good.
And so Zathura goes, with each turn the boys take resulting in another development, from a giant robot whose faulty programming makes him try to kill Walter to a lost astronaut (Punk’d’s Dax Shepard) seeking refuge in their floating house. This relay of predicaments keeps the film’s 101 minutes moving briskly, and with enough imaginative whiz-bang to entertain even the grown-ups in the audience. (It’s definite PG material, though, meaning all but the steeliest small children will probably be, well, too traumatized to drag out Chutes and Ladders ever again.) And excepting an unconvincing sequence in which the house is turned on its side, Zathura is aces visually, decorated with colorful planets and fireballs so brilliant it’s almost a disappointment when things stop being blown up.
Though the morals about broken homes, being different, and appreciating your family are delivered rather ham-handedly—“Walter, there are some games you can’t play alone,” the astronaut tells him—the script is frequently sharp and funny. Shepard’s visitor, when not spouting Hallmarkian treacle, is especially entertaining as the sarcastic adult who takes the game as seriously as the boys do, and the older kids get to be smartasses, too. (When Dad asks Lisa not to describe dates as “hooking up,” she whines, “God! We never should have rented Thirteen!”) Little Danny, not quite ready to embrace his siblings’ pissiness but slowly catching on, gets occasional laughs from his cute insistence that he’s not a baby, such as when he declares a card that actually says, “Rescue stranded astronaut” reads, “Rest on standing Astroturf.” All three young actors are suitably bratty and completely believable as sparring siblings. If you recently made your kids sit through The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, here’s how to make it up to them. CP