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'Fairy godmother' helped breathe life into 'Pride' script

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You won't find Emma Thompson's name in the credits for "Pride & Prejudice." But the movie would have been very different without her.

Joe Wright, who directed "Pride & Prejudice," which opens Friday, calls Thompson his film's "fairy godmother." Thompson, who won an Oscar for the screenplay for "Sense and Sensibility," helped Wright crack tricky scenes in "Pride & Prejudice," which is also based on a Jane Austen novel about English romance and money in the 1800s.

"She gave me a great deal of advice," says Wright, adding that Thompson didn't even want credit for help on the film. "She talked to me very patiently about Austen, which helped a lot, because I was scared. And she contributed many little bits of dialogue to scenes that just felt slightly wrong to me."

There's a scene, for instance, when "Pride's" main character, Elizabeth, rejects a suitor she thinks is unsuitable and then almost immediately learns that her friend - a "spinster" - has accepted a proposal from the man. Wright said the scene seemed flat and Elizabeth came off as too snobby. But then Thompson suggested having Elizabeth's friend get angry with her, saying, "Don't judge me. Don't you judge me," which clarified the women's relationship and helped show how closely money and love were linked in Austen's day.

"That's what Emma is brilliant at. She's very good at finding the essence of a scene and then figuring out how to convey that in the simplest way possible," says Wright.

Wright needed his fairy godmother because he was such an unlikely choice for "Pride & Prejudice." He had never made a big-budget film, he is a socialist who is suspicious of happy endings, he hates the Austen-era high waistlines he thinks make women look like "dumplings," and he had never read the book on which the movie was based.

"When they sent the script, I thought, `Why are they sending this to me?' " Wright says. "But I read the book, and I was shocked by it. It seemed very real and honest to me, and I felt I knew a secret about how it could be done as a movie."

That secret was that "Pride & Prejudice" needs to be cast with young actors in the lead roles. The central characters - Elizabeth and her sisters and friends - are all around 20, but previous actors who played the roles were twice that.

"It's a story about young people, working out their emotions, so it needs to be played by young people," Wright says. "Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson were 40 when they made their version, and that makes no sense, because the story is about discovering your emotions for the first time."

So it was good news that 19-year-old Keira Knightley was already onboard the production when Wright signed up. The bad news was he wasn't sure she was right for the part.

"I thought Keira was too beautiful to play someone who ends up attracting a man, not because of her beauty but because of her great kindness," Wright says. "But then I realized that Keira would not have been the ideal of beauty in 1797. And I met her and realized that I liked the idea of Elizabeth being a tomboy."

Asked what surprised him most in the making of "Pride & Prejudice," Wright says, "Um, is it rude to say Keira? I knew she could do it after meeting her, but I didn't know how good she would be. I mean, she was only 19, but I was so impressed by how focused she was and how easy she was to work with."

The hardest person to work with was Judi Dench, although it wasn't her fault. Dench, who plays a battle-ax who makes things difficult for Elizabeth, had only one week available to shoot "Pride & Prejudice." So Wright, a newcomer to the film world, had to shoot scenes with one of the world's greatest actresses - an Oscar winner, a dame of the British Empire - on the very first day.

"Imagine being the first director in history to get a crap performance from Judi Dench," Wright says. "When I walked in the room with her, I had never been more terrified. But then I saw she was even more terrified, and that made it easy. I realized my job was to make her feel comfortable."

Eventually, he says, the set became a comfortable place for everyone. "Oh, it was heaven. I don't want to sound pretentious, but I never felt more alive and happy," says Wright, talking about the moment when the sets are all built, the costumes are in place, the actors know their lines, and the fairy godmother has polished the script to a fine sheen.

"My assistant director would say, `Action,' and I would be allowed to watch Keira Knightley and Judi Dench and Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn work, and something would happen," Wright says. "Something comes alive in the room. It doesn't happen every time, but when it does, it is so wonderful. You get something so honest and beautiful and true."


(c) 2005, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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