Pride And Prejudice

By Sandra Hall
October 20, 2005

This is the outdoorsy version of Jane Austen's story. It has rainstorms, frosty mornings and farm animals - pigs, chickens and lots of silly geese, some of them human.

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet.

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet.

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Pride And Prejudice
Run Time
OFLC Rating
United Kingdom
Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn, Matthew MacFadyen
Joe Wright
Screen Writer
Deborah Moggach (from the novel by Jane Austen)
All the Bennet women are great gigglers - even witty, bookish Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she is known in Deborah Moggach's loose-fitting screenplay, which sticks to Austen's basic pattern while making radical alterations to trimmings and accessories.

This Elizabeth is played by Keira Knightley, who's become British film's No.1 girl since she got her first break as the heroine's best friend in Bend It Like Beckham. At 20, she must be the youngest screen Elizabeth we have seen so far, and she can't keep still. Given time, Colin Firth's Mr Darcy would probably have worked out how to handle her. But Matthew McFadyen is at a loss. McFadyen (In My Father's Den) is an actor who always looks as if he's come straight from his best friend's funeral, and his Darcy doesn't smoulder. He mopes.

So why do we need a new Pride And Prejudice? The film's producers explain themselves with the line that this is the first big-screen version in 65 years - which sounds like a good excuse, strictly speaking. But where Jane Austen is concerned, strictness has gone thoroughly out of fashion. The idea these days is to take liberties with her - recycling her work in unlikely, even exotic forms. We've had Bride And Prejudice, the Bollywood musical, as well as a contemporary spoof in Bridget Jones's Diary. Both have helped to show yet again that a true classic is infinitely adaptable. Even classics, however, need time to recover between engagements. But here's P and P yet again, filmed by Joe Wright, a young British television director determined to push Austen into the realms of dirty realism.

The first scene epitomises the prevailing tone. It's early morning and Lizzie is returning from a walk in the fields. Ignoring the mud underfoot, she tramps through the Bennet's backyard chicken coop and into the house, where we're treated to a long look at the disordered kitchen before she fetches up in the slightly tidier drawing room. Here, Donald Sutherland's Mr Bennet is taking refuge from the rest of his raucous household, and right away the giggling begins.

With her almond eyes and toothy grin, Knightley seems to be looking on the world with such adolescent glee in creating havoc that you can't quite believe it when the first of Austen's well-crafted witticisms spring lightly from her lips.

Havoc comes naturally to Wright and produces some odd effects - especially in the film's first big scene, which looks more like a hoedown than an assembly room ball. It's here that Darcy and his friend, Bingley (Simon Woods) appear for the first time. As they make their entrance, the whole company stops and stares as if the circus has come to town, replete with lions and dancing bears. It was at this moment that I started wondering what kind of society Wright is being so "realistic" about.

Yet there are times when he strikes exactly the right note. Diminutive Tom Hollander brings an unlikely pathos to the arch snob, Mr Collins.

Despite that she's frequently lit from below, as if in a monster movie, Judi Dench makes an icily plausible Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a character who's always in danger of coming across like a pantomime dame. Sutherland, too, is a canny choice, slipping easily into the role of Mr Bennet. For most of the film, he coasts on a smooth flow of gentle condescension. Then in his last scene, he surprises you - and perhaps surprises himself - with a convincingly poignant flash of deep feeling.

Wright's determination not to pretty up the past starts paying off once things settle down. His mobile cameras enliven many a dinner table discussion, and his dressed-down style doesn't extend to the lives of the really rich. Some of England's grandest Palladian mansions are employed to serve as the homes of the Bingleys, Darcys and de Bourghs.

But he's careless with the customs and conventions that were part of the fabric of Austen's world. She was a miniaturist who got her effects by designing her love stories like time bombs. She programmed them early in the action. When they finally exploded and the smoke cleared, it could be seen that a small revolution had taken place. Class barriers had been overturned and the stratified society of the time was thoroughly shaken up.

She knew as much about suspense as any detective writer. And these filmmakers just don't get it.

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