Pride and Prejudice

November, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Robert Z. Leonard

Starring:Laurence Olivier, Greer Garson, Maureen O'Sullivan, Edna May Oliver, Mary Boland, and Edmund Gwenn

Pride & Prejudice

Jane Austen's novel has been filmed at least a half-dozen times over the past 6 decades; it's even spawned a Bollywood version, turning the material into an Indian musical, all of which suggests a durability that would be the envy of the Duracell bunny. With so much repeated chewing on this venerable old bone, is there any way to revisit the material once again while avoiding the tooth-marks of its predecessors?

The answer lies in the leads; Lawrence Oliver & Greer Garson still demand attention with their 1940 version, while Colin Firth and the ephemeral Jennifer Ehle provided their own solid interpretations in the television version released a decade ago. Now cometh British T. V. director Joe Wright, who blends fresh earthiness with a slickly contemporary take on these star-crossed lovers, underscored by uniformly crisp supporting performances. The results, I'm happy to say, make for an Austen experience as delightful as that provided by Emma Thompson's "Sense & Sensibility". This "P &P" is pure fun.

Working from a script by Deborah Moggach, Winter imagines a British country life considerably less elegant than that found in the typical BBC period piece; lace, satin and fine airs exist, but only for landed gentry. The "gentleman farmer" is presented here with emphasis on his livestock, not his library. Getting one's hands dirty counts for much more here than the ability to turn an apt phrase. Tenant farmers like The Bennet's (Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn) face a further challenge in moving up the social scale; they have 5 daughters of marriageable age, each with uncertain prospects. Mrs. Bennet frets about moving these potential brides into the marrige-marketplace and receives uneven cooperation from the girls themselves; blond, pretty and docile Jane, (Rosamund Pike) is ready to wed someone who's well above her station, while her intelligent, sharp-tongued younger sister Elizabeth, (Keira Kinghtley) wants to find someone who'll treat her as an equal, not an adornment. The trio of even younger siblings includes two who are willing to chance considerable risks to their reputations and an ugly duckling well on the way to an early and unsatisfying spinsterhood.

When a wealthy neighbor by the name of Bingley (Simon Woods) beings to court Jane, the Bennet household throbs with paroxysms of nervous expectation. Unfortunately, his good friend and houseguest Darcy, (Matthew MacFayden) so irritates Elizabeth that she rebuffs his earnest but awkward efforts at courtship. Bingley's sister, repulsed by Jane's social inferiority, turns her brother against his budding affections while Elizabeth is forced to dodge the attentions of Mr. Collins, a pompous clergyman who has been promised title to the house and lands which the Bennets call home. To top it off, a dashing officer in the Guards is making lecherous eyes at Lydia, one of those lubricious younger sisters… 

As befits a novel with ingredients as labyrinthine as these, Pride offers subplots and characters in prolific abundance; as Mrs. Bennet, Blethyn dithers to perfection over her brood while Sutherland's portrayal of her husband contains a sense of resigned but well-grounded gravity which allows the action to pivot around him whenever he's on screen. As Bingley's waspish sister Caroline, Kelly Reilly exudes venom from every one of her highly lacquered pores. Fortunately however, the screenwriter has wisely pared down the novel's non-essentials so that the focus remains squarely on Darcy and Elizabeth. It's a wise decision; MacFayden's Darcy is all no nonsense, rock-solid masculinity, (as compared to Oliver's dandy-ish persona or Firth's icy reserve in earlier versions) and the decision to make Darcy all hunk and less conflicted pays off. There's no ambiguity here; Darcy's a man's man who knows what he wants and sees what he likes only to find himself dealing with a young woman whose dark good looks and radiant smile come equipped with an autonomous will every bit as pronounced as his own. 

MacFayden’s lines are appropriately few and he makes the best of them, but it's Knightley's Elizabeth who steals the film; armed with an appealing candor, (courtesy of Moggach's sparkling lines) the actress creates a character on the cusp of maturity who sees the world around her with joyous exuberance and no illusions. She overcomes the circumstances of her family's turbulent surroundings, (and her own misguided judgments) with a vivacity delivered straight to the audience's jugular; it's impossible to watch Knightley on the screen and not be caught up in her appeal. The actress followed her lightweight roles in Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean with an unappetiteizing turn earlier this fall as a repugnant bounty hunter in Domino. Here the actress finds herself in material ideally suited to her chimerical good looks, which she employs to morph from enchanting pixy to stunning beauty simply by altering her smile and darkening her expression. If ever a role was made for an actress, this is it. 

Wright pulls off quite an appealing contradiction here, juxtaposing hints of late 18th century Hogarthian excess reminiscent of Tom Jones on the one hand with judicious suggestions of a distinctly 21st century feminism on the other. The former can be found in the table manners employed 'round the Bennett's family table, large hogs matter-of-factly roaming their back yard and Mrs. Bennett's tendency to get publicly plastered when out for an evening; the latter culminates in a final love scene in which the newlyweds challenge each other with nicknames suggesting that theirs really will be a marriage of equals. If that's hopelessly romantic and politically correct, there's no harm; what better contrast could anyone want?

The Verdict? This one's a re-make that improves mightily on the original while signaling the emergence of a major new leading lady. 

   

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