A movie for the age, and a keeper for the ages, “Pride & Prejudice” brings Jane Austen’s best-loved novel to vivid, widescreen life, as well as making an undisputed star of 20-year-old Keira Knightley. Making positive use of thesps closer to the characters’ real ages, but also benefiting from a visual approach by young Brit director Joe Wright that melds realism with romance in a canny balance, film looks set to appeal to more than just Janeites and upscale distaffers. Following its world preem at Toronto, pic goes wide in Blighty Sept. 16 and goes Stateside Nov. 18.
Aficionados of the 1995 five-hour BBC miniseries, with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, won’t necessarily be convinced by this bigscreen version. But anyone coming to the movie fresh and not demanding a chapter-by-chapter adaptation will respond to the pic’s emotional sweep, sumptuous lensing and marvelous sense of ensemble.
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Wright, 33, who comes from a realist tradition in Brit miniseries (“Charles II: The Power & the Passion”), and scripter Deborah Moggach, a novelist and miniseries adaptor in her own right, extract the youthful essence of Austen’s novel, as well as providing a richly detailed setting. Scenes barely sketched in Austen’s dialogue-heavy, description-light prose leap fully detailed onto the screen, thanks to Sarah Greenwood’s terrific production design and Jacqueline Durran’s textured costumes.
Taking their cue from when the novel was first written rather than published, both designers go for a softer, late 18th-century look rather than a stiffer early 19th-century one. More relaxed vibe fits better with an adaptation that gives a slightly modern twist to the characters. As an evocation of period English life in the shires, “P&P,” though set around a century earlier, is the most flavorsome since Phil Agland’s under-rated version of Thomas Hardy’s “The Woodlanders.”
Moggach’s solution to paring down the novel is to concentrate on Elizabeth (Knightley), the second of five daughters belonging to a couple (Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn) of reasonable but by no way lavish means. When news comes that a wealthy young bachelor, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), has moved into a nearby stately manor, Elizabeth’s mother smells a convenient match in the making.
Film’s knockout first reel, composed of two long sequences, scoops the viewer up into late 18th-century market-town life and the main characters’ lives. Opening sequence, with the first of many long steadicam takes, follows Elizabeth as she walks up to and inside the family home. Pic then cuts straight to a local ball, where Elizabeth’s elder sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike), comes under Bingley’s eye but Elizabeth herself gets off on quite the wrong foot with Bingley’s handsome but standoffish friend, Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen).
As Elizabeth and Darcy start their convoluted, sour-sweet courtship, events swiftly etch the novel’s main developments. Elizabeth becomes interested in a dashing soldier, Lt. Wickham (Rupert Friend), who has an awkward history with Darcy; meanwhile, she’s pursued by a boring reverend, William Collins (Tom Hollander).
Initial set of romantic entanglements comes memorably together at the 35-minute mark in another, much more upscale ball, this time at Bingley’s residence. Helmer Wright’s use of long steadicam sequences and Moggach’s ability to keep a large number of characters on the boil come into their own here. Elaborately but not showily choreographed, and giving the viewer a precise sense of social geography within the interlinked rooms, it’s the movie’s set piece, as Elizabeth negotiates advances from both Collins and Darcy.
Pic starts to tighten the emotional screws just prior to the hour mark, with the first entry of romantic piano-and-strings scoring. Darcy’s passionate proposal, and Elizabeth’s equally passionate rejection, show both thesps at the top of their game, emotionally fueling the long final act and coda.
Looking every bit a star, Knightley, who’s shown more spirit than acting smarts so far in her career, really steps up to the plate here, holding her own against the more classically trained Macfadyen (as well as vets like Blethyn, Sutherland and Judi Dench) with a luminous strength that recalls a young Audrey Hepburn. More than the older Ehle in the TV series, she catches Elizabeth’s essential skittishness and youthful braggadocio, making her final conversion all the more moving. Thesp’s only weakness is her over-clipped delivery, more Kensington than rural Hertfordshire.
Macfadyen makes Darcy a more conflicted, softer figure than Firth’s indelibly etched performance, but one that fits the movie’s more realistic mood.
Other casting is aces down the line, with Blethyn reining back her Mrs. Bennet into a believable mother hen, Sutherland overcoming a sometimes wobbly English accent in a perf that pays dividends at the end (in a beautiful scene with Knightley), and Dench perking up the picture at key moments as a waspishly commanding Lady Catherine.
Mass of smaller roles add texture to every scene, increasing the sense of ensemble and keeping the screen busy. Pike’s well-meaning Jane is a touching study in selflessness, while Kelly Reilly’s Caroline Bingley brings a tart sexual jealousy to her early scenes with Macfadyen and Knightley.
Film’s most controversial changes are in the characters of Collins and Bingley, both of whom are used for comic relief. But despite being completely different from the novel’s Collins, both physically and emotionally — as well as being considerably older — Hollander does make the role work dramatically in Moggach’s condensation, allowing modern auds a way into the social rituals without direct satire.
Amazingly, given the book’s enduring popularity, this is only the second bigscreen version of the novel, 65 years after MGM’s Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier B&W starrer, typical of studio-bound English literature productions of the period. Current production was entirely filmed on location, using a variety of period structures all around England.