With only one big screen film adaptation hitting theaters in the nearly two centuries years since its literary source was originally published, it didn't seem likely that Jane Austen's acclaimed "Pride & Prejudice" would return to the cinemas any time soon. After all, despite a few TV movies and miniseries, the only theatrical version was the 1940 film starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.
Now, and for no easily discernible reason, we've had the 2003 limited release film of the same name, the yet to be released, but bigger profile 2005 release (starring Keira Knightley), and between them an interesting hybrid that takes the story and has some fun with it, Indian movie style.
Yes, I'm referring to "Bride & Prejudice," a modern day updating of the classic tale that features -- among other things -- a lead actress recently labeled as the most beautiful woman in the world. If you've never heard of Aishwarya Rai, you've probably seen her in ads for L'Oreal or perhaps as the 1994 Miss World pageant winner. Then again, if you're familiar with and/or a fan of films created within the Bollywood industry -- India's answer to Hollywood -- you already know Rai as a veteran of many such films.
This American-Indian culture clash might not set the world on fire, but it will certainly introduce its inhabitants to the up and coming star who easily rises above the otherwise mediocre if lively film in which she makes her English language debut. Loosely following Austin's plot and characters, the film hops, skips and dances its way from India to London and L.A. and then back again as it tells the tale of star-crossed lovers and how their and others' opinions affect their world.
Director Gurinder Chadha -- who works from a script she co-authored with hubbie Paul Mayeda Berges -- has already delved into such cross-cultural offerings with the hit "Bend it Like Beckham." Here, she takes an interesting and commercially sound if artistically risky move by meshing the trappings of the American romantic comedy with the various elements of a typical Bollywood film. That means that in the middle of an otherwise middling rom-com, the characters suddenly break into song or full-blown musical numbers complete with colorful traditional garb, lavish production, and sometimes an enormous background cast present to add even more dancing and singing.
The effect is odd and even a bit unsettling -- at least for American viewers not used to such cinematic displays or the recent resurgence of the movie musical. Yet, at the same time, it's somewhat infectiously fun in a sort of "Beach Blanket Bingo" fashion where you come to realize none of it's meant to be taken seriously.
And that's a good thing since the story -- despite its origins -- is mediocre at best, the acting sometimes forced when not weak or way over the top, and the direction -- notwithstanding the staged musical numbers -- is a bit of a letdown for Chadha following the far superior "Beckham."
That said, Rai is certainly a sight for sore eyes and clearly makes the film that much easier to watch. It's hard to say what sort of career she might end up having in Hollywood, but her performance here shows she has the potential, especially when one considers the lightweight material with which she must work.
Martin Henderson ("Torque," "The Ring") isn't as successful playing opposite her, although I'll bet some viewers will nevertheless still find him dreamy. Anupam Kher returns to work with Chadha again playing the father figure, Nadira Babbar is too shrill and too much of a caricature playing the "marry them off" mother figure to be as funny as intended, while Namrata Shirodkar is fine playing one of their daughters.
The foreigners are embodied by Naveen Andrews ("The English Patient," "Might Joe Young") as her potential suitor, Indira Varma as his snooty sister and Marsha Mason ("Chapter Two," "The Goodbye Girl") briefly appearing as the Queen "Rhymes with Witch" character. The real outsider, however, is the culturally transformed, Indian expatriate played by Nitin Ginatra ("Secrets & Lies," "Truly, Madly, Deeply") who envisions himself as a now Americanized player living the American dream.
Following the romantic comedy formula to a T -- while keeping in line with many of the Bollywood film "rules" (such as no kissing but lots of sultry dancing) -- the film is a slightly enjoyable diversion that's short on story or interesting characters, but somewhat long on unexpected, sheer goofiness. "Bride & Prejudice" won't likely win over Austen fans, but it's mindlessly entertaining enough to warrant a look.