Let’s start this review with a little honesty: I don’t like period pieces. This is not to say that there haven’t been some good ones over the years. It’s just that so many of them feel like long “Masterpiece Theater” episodes. For one to work on me, it has to be really lively. Interestingly, the novels of Jane Austen seem to translate surprisingly well to the screen…or perhaps her works have just been adapted by filmmakers who know how to do them right. Following successful big screen versions of Emma and Sense and Sensibility, we now get Pride & Prejudice. This is a vibrant, funny film that doesn’t feel like a period piece. (And I mean that as a big compliment.)
Keira Knightly stars as Elizabeth Bennet, a young woman living in a nice country home with her parents and four sisters. Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) is a laid-back kind of guy, while Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) is single-mindedly obsessed with marrying off each of her daughters. At a lavish dance, older sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) meets a new wealthy neighbor named Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and hopes he will pop the question. Elizabeth tries to chat up the man’s friend, Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), but he is sour and standoffish. The evening ends with Elizabeth overhearing him insulting her.
Their paths continue to cross. Elizabeth enjoys needling the uptight Darcy. He in turn enjoys stonewalling her. Although they both proclaim to dislike one another, their behavior is clearly flirtatious. Darcy likes the fact that this woman can go toe-to-toe with him, and she wouldn’t bother trying to poke through his armor if she didn’t sense that there were chinks in it. Watching them is reminiscent of the way kids often pick on the members of the opposite sex whom they secretly like.
Fans of Austen’s novel know that love doesn’t come easily to these characters, though. Mr. Bingley spontaneously spurns Jane, and there’s some question as to whether Darcy played a part in it. Some of his other actions appear similarly problematic. Since he’s so emotionally distant, Darcy doesn’t always make his intentions clear right away. Elizabeth often can’t get a read on him.
”Pride & Prejudice” has been filmed before, most memorably in a 90’s BBC production with Colin Firth that many feel is the definitive screen version. It was also the basis for the novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and its movie adaptation. I think that part of the reason it remains popular is that the theme is universal. Although set in another era, the story translates to any period in time. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy make a bad first impression on each other and have trouble getting beyond that. Slowly, they begin to see the “real” person staring back at them. Darcy is, at heart, a deeply generous man whose exterior stiffness masks a well of compassion. Elizabeth is sassy on the surface but in some ways it’s a defense mechanism to protect her until she feels loved. Despite all outward appearances, they belong together. Who among us hasn’t misjudged someone we later became extremely fond of or even loved?
Director Joe Wright – working from a screenplay by Deborah Moggach, which was given an uncredited revision by Emma Thompson – avoids the fatal mistake of period pieces: he doesn’t focus on the scenery. Too many films in the genre are so impressed with their own sense of period authenticity that the life gets sucked right out of the story. Wright wisely keeps the focus on the characters. As a result, Pride & Prejudice is full of emotion. You can get lost in this classic tale just as easily as if it were a modern-day romantic comedy.
Undoubtedly, the film’s highlight is the performance from Keira Knightly. The actress’s star has continually risen over the past few years. After solid turns in pictures like Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean, she finally graduates to leading actress. Her Elizabeth is feisty and smart, with a core sensitivity that makes her utterly charming. Knightly is called upon to play a wide range of emotions in the role: playfulness, disdain, anger, infatuation, love. She gives a performance that is completely realized. As of this writing, there are still a few weeks left in the movie year, but I’m going to go out on a limb. Knightly is so perfect in this film that I predict she will not only get nominated for an Oscar but will actually win. She’s that good.
Pride & Prejudice also has first-rate supporting performances, most notably from Brenda Blethyn, who is hilarious as the marriage-obsessed matriarch. There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through in which Mrs. Barrett goes from being grief-stricken to elated in a matter of seconds. The two disparate feelings are created by the exact same event. Blethyn handles the moment beautifully, getting maximum comic mileage from it. Sutherland and MacFadyen do fine work too, as does Rosamund Pike, who I officially skewered for her one-note performance in October’s dreadful Doom. She redeems herself nicely here.
The only problem I had with the movie is that it was occasionally hard to understand what was being said due to the actors’ accents. (British accents are a common problem for American moviegoers.) The resolution of one particular subplot was rendered indecipherable to me when I couldn’t understand its verbal explanation. Thank goodness we have Jane Austen to turn to! Despite that tiny problem, Pride & Prejudice is extremely well made on every level. It’s also a lot more fun than I expected it to be.
( 1/2 out of four)
Pride & Prejudice is rated PG for some mild thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
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