A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, PG-13, 127 mins.

Elizabeth Bennet: Keira Knightley / Darcy: Matthew Macfadyen / Mrs. Bennet: Brenda Blethyn / Mr. Bennet: Donald Sutherland / Charles Bingley: Simon Woods / Lt. Wickham: Rupert Friend / William Collins: Tom Hollander / Jane Bennet: Rosamund Pike/ Lydia Bennet: Jena Malone / Lady Catherine: Judi Dench / Kitty Bennet: Carey Mulligan / Mary Bennet: Talulah Riley

Directed by Joe Wright /  Written by Deborah Moggach /  Based on the novel by Jane Austen

I’ve seen two completely divergent films that have starred Keira Knightly this year.  First, there was this fall’s DOMINO, which – hyperbole aside – was like being kicked right in the jaw with a Cardiac steel-toed work boot.  That film was as lifeless as it was soulless.  Now comes Knightly in yet another re-telling of Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and this film was like being kissed softly on the cheek by a pair of luscious, soft lips.  Her earthy, light-hearted, and fiercely spirited performance reminded me of the miraculous and oftentimes soft-spoken power that quiet and patient films can have, especially in our otherwise polluted cinematic world of MTV-inspired epics of viscous, visceral overkill.  I felt dirty after watching DOMINO.  Now along comes PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, a film that has thoroughly cleansed me of my past viewing ills.

This is the third adaptation of the Austen’s famous tale that I have seen recently, and the second alone this year.  Is the film industry so bereft of ideas that they need to turn to the well and regurgitate yet another revisionist tale of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?  Not really, especially when one considers how drastically different all of the recent versions have been.  First, there was the magnificent 1995 BBC Television version, which gave the novel some much needed scope to breathe and a running time to do it thorough justice.  For the definitive Austen experience, this is the one to look out for on the video store shelves.  Then there was an equally energetic and whimsical BRIDE AND PREJUDICE from early this year, a film that I loved as it was an effervescent and lively amalgamation of the conventions of a Bollywood musical with the narrative trappings of Austen’s work.  In terms of limitless imagination and creativity, this adaptation proved to be an odd, yet winning, look at the world of strong willed women surrounded by a cultural and social world that oppresses their status. 

Now comes Joe Wright’s more faithful in spirit film adaptation, which sort of begs the question, “Do we need another remake of this ageless tale of love?”  The short answer is "yes" in the sense that this version demonstrates how one can effectively appropriate a world-renowned novel and make a succinct and successful film version of it within a very sparse two-hour time frame.  Fans of the mini-series may cringe at that thought, but there is no denying that this version of the story still remains as indelible and charming as ever as it creates a story that is as fresh and entertaining as anyone before it.  That they spin new life into this tale with such a modest running time is a small miracle in a way.  The makers of the latest HARRY POTTER film could learn a lot from this adaptation of an equally famous book.  This PRIDE AND PREJUDICE carefully edits out material that does not lend itself to being faithful to the spirit of Austen.  This is not a rigid, flaccid, and laboriously faithful adaptation that can’t leave anything on the cutting room floor like the recent POTTER films; this one is tight, taut, and gets the job done in an agreeably fine manner.

This story has limitless and timeless appeal on so many intimate levels.  The overall plot has always carried an aura of romantic ferocity and immediacy at the same time.  Love and romance in Austen is both real and manufactured.  Marriage – at times – is not so much about finding Mr. or Mrs. Right, falling in love, getting married, and then living happily ever after.  It's more like a business commodity that is started by a parental figure – a sort of social  stock market.  The key to the effect of Austen’s work is that - yes - love seems so much like an undesirable exchange of goods. 

Mothers have daughters that all want to fall in love and get married, whereas the mothers already have keen ideas on whom they will marry more often because of the suitor’s level of social respectability, status, and wealth.  The exasperating and, in turn, immersing element of Austen is the fact that we, the audience, hate to see love treated as an exchange of human cargo.  Love should be real, legitimate, natural, and passionate.  In Austen’s work we usually have characters who look beyond love as a business transaction but nevertheless can’t for the life of them realize that – dang it – they love one another in genuine ways.  These men and women both hate and love each other and despise the institutions that impede their ability to get together.  This is crucial to the work’s overall effect.  By the end, if the two don’t end up as a couple, we will feel dramatically stabbed in the back and betrayed.

Nothing is more bothersome when the barrier to love is money.  Maybe that’s why the new neighbour to the Bennet family is Mr. Bingley, who is widely known to have an income of “four or five thousand pounds a year."  It is not so much the idea of a good, strong-willed, and caring man that Mrs. Bennet (the delightfully funny Brenda Blethyn) has her sights on.  Her vision is clouded by dollar signs.  Yes, Bingley is okay on the eyes and is an affable chap, but it's just that Mrs. Bennet wants to see her eldest daughter end up with this wealthy man and be set up for life…or else.

Bennet bachelorette number one is the eldest daughter, June.  As Austen presented in her book, there is an order to life and, thusly, daughters are to be married off in order of age.  Jane seems to be a willing participant, but her sister Elizabeth (Knightly, more on her later) is a bit too sassy, smart, opinionated, and independent to believe in such rubbish.  Nevertheless, all of the Bennet women find themselves at a dance attended by Bingley and other potential suitors.  Judy seems to be falling for Bingley.  He has brought his friend Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) and it soon becomes clear that he and Elizabeth are falling in mutual dislike of each other very fast.  Why?  Well, maybe it has something to do with Elizabeth overhearing the ice-cold and stoic Darcy telling a friend that he finds her “Tolerable, but not handsome enough,” or maybe that she “loathes” him for his candor? 

The plot, in true Austen fashion, grows thicker by the minute.  It may appear that, initially at first, there is no way that the spunky and intelligent Elizabeth could ever love a man that deeply wounded her pride.  To make matters more emotionally trying for Liz is the terrible news that she uncovers about Darcy.  She later discovers from a handsome and congenial British officer, Wickham (Rupert Friend) that Darcy sabotaged his financial future when they were both childhood friends.  To make things even worse, she soon begins to believe that Darcy may have had something to do with Bingley cooling off things with her sister June.  Then, to further throw a wrench into the machine, Elizabeth becomes the object of affection to a man she most definitely does not want to marry, Rev. Collins (Tom Hollander). 

Mrs. Bennet loves Collins’ wealth, but Mr. Bennet (the very commanding Donald Sutherland) loves his daughter’s happiness more.  Collins does propose and the mother is higher than a kite.  Elizabeth, seeing Collins for the prudish, dry, and boring prig that he is, vehemently refuses.  She wants another man in her life and, even if they both don’t want to freely divulge it, it is Darcy.  The inevitable does in fact happen, which needs very little embellishing on my part.

There is such a joyous economy with this adaptation, and many subplots have been omitted from the source material, maybe for the better.  The Bingley/Jane relationship subplot is there, but sort of pushed off to the side to focus more on Darcy and Elizabeth.  Perhaps the one truncated area of the film that I think does not work well is the ill developed character of Wickham, who truly becomes a catalyst for the decisions of other characters later.  He is hastily established as a romantic adversary to Darcy for Liz’s love, but his role is so abbreviated here.  The subplot that involves him running off with Lydia Bennett seems haphazardly established and under-written.  More than anything, Wickham feels too much like a manipulative plot device than a full-fledged character.  A similar character in BRIDE AND PREJUDICE was much better handled.

However, this does not overly dissuade me from the film’s overall worth.  This is an expertly directed work of Austen as I have ever seen.  Joe Wight gives so many individual moments such a rich pageantry.  His camera glides effortlessly through the proceedings, careening around corners and brushing past characters as they interact with one another, almost like a silent, invisible and  neutral bystander.  He shots the film with such a simple elegance.  The overall look of the movie feels more realistic than in other past adaptations.  The settings have a much more lived-in and used look, and appear refreshingly less like glorious and colorful drawings on an art director’s table. 

And, yes, there is that great Austen dialogue (wonderfully handled by the uncredited ghost writer, Emma Thompson) that is that formal, overly semantic, and preachy everyday diction where characters take twenty words to describe feelings and emotions where a few might have sufficed.  Yet, this is a society of rigidity in terms of ethics, morals, and code of conduct.  It’s not sufficient to simply tell a cute gal that you love her.  In Austen’s world, a guy like Darcy has to tell Liz, “You must know - surely you must know that it was all for you... I would have to tell you, you have bewitched me body and soul and I love and love and love you. And never wish to be parted from you from this day forward.”  I mean, when he tells her that, you sure feel that he means it.

The central and integral love story is given the prominence it deserves, and the performances by the leads are crucial to our buy in.  Knightly is simply luminous as Elizabeth.  She's gorgeous, cordial, playful, sumptuous, and many times very vulnerable and timid.  Knightly knows intuitively how to play such a strong Austen heroine.  She is a woman that has insecurities, to be sure, but she speaks her mind with a frankness that cuts viscously through any simple level of sensitivity.  During the film’s most powerful moment - during a heated argument with her and Darcy in the rain - she lashes out at him, “From the first moment I met you, your arrogance made me realize that you were the last man in the world I could ever marry.”  Her forcefulness in her portrayal is never contrived.  Her words and wits are her weapons, and she hits all of the right spots.  She plays Liz with masterful conviction and tenacity.

Darcy, on the other hand, is the trickier role to play in my mind.  MacFayden – at first – garners our contempt and then later must gain our trust and sympathy.  We like Liz from the beginning, but we have to grow to like Darcy.  His transition from an emotional detached man of affluence to a sensitive and caring suitor is the film’s biggest transition, and MacFayden seems equal to the challenge and manages to have instant chemistry with Knightly. 

Some of the other supporting players are also brilliantly performed.  Tom Hollander seems to have a lot of fun playing Collins as a man of such rehearsed formality that every sentence he utters seems humorously stilted and prepared.  Blethyn is a boisterous presence as the mother with guerrilla style tactics when it comes to finding suitors for her daughters.  Sutherland just may have done his best work in years as the father who loves his family and tries to appease all sides equally.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is streamlined Jane Austen that works efficiently as an enchanted delight from beginning to end.  This is a nearly complete entertainment – flawlessly acted, confidently directed, and pitch perfect in terms of not betraying the original novel's tone and mood.  This new version of the classic tale is not religiously and stridently devoted to the source material, nor does it ever aim to be.  This film version of Austen’s immortal tale of love feels more at home with capturing the nuances of her novel, both in terms of period detail as well as on it's human levels.  On the basis of instilling in the audience an involving tale of the confusion, eagerness, and yearning for love, this is one of the better ones to come around.

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