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Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813, is at once a comedy of manners, a witty satire, exquisitely perceptive observations of class differences and a classic romance. It has been adapted for film and television more than half a dozen times, perhaps most notably the 1940 film version with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and the 1995 BBC miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
Now, with a smart new screenplay by Deborah Moggach, director Joe Wright fully justifies a new rendering of the novel on screen, one which is both visually arresting and dramatically effective, freshly capturing the many virtues of the novel.
With the structure of contemporary romantic comedy (the couple meet, they are attracted, barriers stand in the way, barriers are overcome, love triumphs), the match of Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), bright and independent daughter of a somewhat down-at the heels provincial family, and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Macfayden), invariable called simply "Mr. Darcy"–handsome, aloof and aristocratic–provides the overarching dramatic tension for the movie. Even those thoroughly familiar with the outcome of the story will find themselves rooting for the couple to resolve their differences.
Class differences are at the heart of the conflict, with Darcy’s acute consciousness of what is appropriate for a man of his standing directly antagonistic to Elizabeth’s disposition for seeing beyond social convention. The British caste system, nearly as rigidly stratified as that in India, is well depicted in the film, from differences in home environments to differences in dress, manners, speech and attitude. Elizabeth’s mother (Brenda Blethyn) is thoroughly fixated on getting her five daughters married, ideally up the social scale to a more comfortable economic status. (In the only significant misstep in the direction of the film, Mrs. Bennet is overplayed to the point of caricature.)
Contrast the working farm frayed-edges Bennet residence with the elegant country house of Charles Bingley (Simon Woods), complete with footmen, and the palatial home of the autocratic Lady Catherine (Judi Dench). Darcy’s home, too, is seen, with his impressive sculpture collection.
Still, Bingley is not beyond seeing beyond his own class and is attracted to Jane (Rosamund Pike),Elizabeth’s eldest sister, as is she towards him. Darcy discourages the match, another wedge driven between him and Elizabeth. Other notable characters include Elizabeth’s father (a wryly appealing portrayal by Donald Sutherland), Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), a pompous and self-important parson whose proposal is turned down by Elizabeth. He marries her friend Charlotte (Claudie Blakley) who urges Elizabeth not to judge her; the security of a respectable marriage, even to a prig like Collins, is better than no prospects at all for her–there simply were no alternatives for women.
Keira Knightley (Love Actually, Doctor Zhivago) radiates intelligence and awareness as Elizabeth in one of the finest performances of the year. She thoroughly inhabits the role as Elizabeth’s perceptions of Darcy shift and responses to him change with changing circumstances. MacFadyen, tall dark, and handsome, may not be everyone’s favorite Darcy–there’s not a lot of variation in his rather stiff interpretation of the role. But when he thaws, the romance between the two of them works and some genuine screen chemistry develops.
Wright makes fine use of the English countryside landscape which, along with the varied interiors, creates a strong sense of place and period. His exposition of the multi-character, multi-strand plot is consistently crystal clear.