Keira Knightley has a way of squinting–narrowing her eyes and looking simultaneously skeptical and perky–that I just can’t believe they had invented in the early 19th century. This stands out solely because everything else about this production of Pride and Prejudice is so well-appointed, from the gently worn blue paint on the walls to the cotton lace on the pillows. Jane Austen’s 1813 novel has been brought to the big and little screens many times before, but this new version, directed by Joe Wright, can’t be beat. It is charming, lively, and satisfyingly authentic.
The story will be familiar from high-school English class, if not from prior productions. The Bennets have five daughters and no particular fortune; acquiring suitable husbands is a continuing concern. Pride and Prejudice follows the sisters through a season of courtships and confusions, focusing particularly on the second-oldest, Elizabeth (Knightly).
“Pride” is represented by the character of Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden). He is introduced into the village setting as a vastly wealthy sophisticate from the big city. MacFayden manages to give Darcy an intriguingly unreadable affect, blending melancholy with hauteur. Lizzie finds plenty to squint about. But as the story unfolds, with reverses and surprises, it turns out that there was more to Mr. Darcy than she suspected. The “Prejudice” was her own. This story is a rare one, because it turns out that a rich person is actually a good person. That doesn’t happen much in contemporary storytelling.
Jane Austen’s novel encompasses a very large cast of characters (five sisters, parents, suitors, friends, aunts and uncles and forgotten cousins). Someone attempting to skim through the book is going to start forgetting who’s who, and a compressed two-hour film version faces a challenge. Director Wright has done a good job of choosing memorable faces, and giving each character enough space to establish himself.
Besides Knightley, the biggest names are Donald Sutherland as the girls’ father, and Judi Dench as the fearsome Lady Catherine de Bourg. Dench brings to de Bourg the same delightfully terrifying qualities she displayed as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Sutherland is likewise excellent as Mr. Bennett, wearing a white wig and a vaguely distracted expression, as befits a man living in a household populated by some very excitable unmarried daughters. While he appears to offer stability (particularly contrasted with his wife, enjoyably played by Brenda Blethyn), Lizzie correctly calls his bluff when he is about to allow a giddy younger daughter to make a trip to London. It is the only way he will have peace, he says, and Lizzie asks, “Peace? Is that really all you care about?” That small exchange brings new depth to the character.
Smaller parts are also thoughtfully assigned, rescuing characters from being lost in the multitudes. An example is Mr. Collins, the class-conscious clergyman who stands to inherit the Bennett’s home and comes shopping for a daughter to marry. He might well slip by unnoticed, but Tom Hollander artfully projects such a self-contained, self-important quality that every time he is on screen it’s a sight worth savoring. Claudie Blakley, with her vulnerable demeanor and memorable nose, is a similarly good choice for Charlotte, Lizzie’s best friend and Collins’ substitute bride.
Yet in a scene between Lizzie and Charlotte we get one of the film’s occasional flaws. After Lizzie turns down Collins’s proposal, Charlotte accepts it. Lizzie is astounded that her friend could marry such a tedious fellow, but Charlotte explains that her expectations of marriage are less romantic than Lizzie’s. So far so good–but in the script, Charlotte ends by insisting to Lizzie, “So don’t judge me! Don’t you dare judge me!”
Clang. That’s the kind of detail, like the narrowed eyes, that just doesn’t ring true to the era. Nor does it work when Lizzie says of her beloved, “He and I are so similar, we’re both so stubborn,” nor when Darcy calls his beloved (brace yourself) “Goddess divine.”
But these are small complaints in a film which is, overall, delicious. Wright has not tried to reinterpret, update, or improve on Jane Austen. He trusted the material to be strong enough to stand on its own. Two hundred years of readers would agree.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.