on November 25, 2005
When I heard that there was a new version of "Pride and Prejudice" to be made, I was far from pleased. In fact, I was fairly annoyed: A&E's version with Colin Firth has been a staple of my DVD collection for an incredibly long time, and I couldn't imagine anyone tampering with perfection. Why mess with genius?
Happily, I was wrong in my estimation of the movie. Perhaps it's only appropriate, given the subject matter: the whole story of "Pride and Prejudice" is wrapped up in wrong estimations of character, miscommunications, and partial understandings. The Focus Features version of "Pride and Prejudice" is more of a classic Romance, set earlier in period and filmed against more stunning backdrops than the A&E version: there were no grand cliffs or windswept heaths in that one, but they work here.
The performances are universally excellent: I was appropriately annoyed by Brenda Blethyn's ludicrously inappropriate Mrs. Bennet, and Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh is one of the most delicious strokes of casting genius...ever. Donald Sutherland as the bemused patriarch Mr. Bennet holds his own in a largely British cast, and was suitably affectionately distracted in his fatherly role. Simon Woods is amiable and open-faced as Mr. Bingley, and properly deserves Rosamund Pike's delicate Jane.
The movie belongs, however, to Matthew McFadyen and Keira Knightley, as it rightly should. The book, however involved its subplots, focused mainly on their sparring, and the film wisely excises a lot of the extraneous matter, tightening its focus and condensing some scenes. Matthew McFadyen is, possibly, an even better Mr. Darcy than Colin Firth (though that pains me to say): his Darcy is sensitive, prone to moodiness and shows of the Stiff Upper Lip, but his eyes don't always manage to keep up the mask, and it is this that makes him amazing. When his eyes do light up, it is stunning, because we have learned not to expect it. He positively smolders with passion, even soaking wet with pleading in his eyes. Or perhaps especially soaking wet. In any case, he smolders. Bosoms will heave, corsets or not, when he's onscreen.
Watching Keira Knightley as Lizzie Bennet I was irresistibly reminded of another fiercely intelligent, wide-eyed brunette bookworm: Winona Ryder's Jo March, in 1994's exquisite "Little Women." Knightley conveys the same compelling blend of delicacy and strength as Ryder managed, no easy feat in this world of one-note romance, and one I wasn't sure she could manage, as I've never been a fan. Knightley does a good job, however: her Lizzie is a "fearsome creature," to quote herself, both fiercely loyal and heartily passionate for life, yet always with just a trace of vulnerability; one wonders, at times, if her passionate demeanour isn't as much a disguise as Darcy's cool mask. Perhaps that is what makes their inevitable but much-delayed romance so alluring: here are two people who absolutely should be in love with each other, but manage to think themselves out of it for a very long time.
The world of the film is more realistically rural than other adaptations: the ladies' hems are dirty, their dresses are frequently wrinkled, and pigs traipse through the Bennet house as often as visitors do. There are some lovely little touches to the filmmaking as well, such as one scene featuring a distracted Mr. Darcy being circled, predator-like, by Lizzie and the coolly condescending Caroline Bingley; one absolutely feels sorry for the man. I particularly liked the dancing scenes: there is always something going on with someone familiar in the corner of the frame, lending the scenes a pleasant intimacy that suits the material nicely.
Ultimately, I love this story so much because its romantic heroes deserve one another, even though they do not always realize it. Theirs is a relationship built not only on passion - although in this version, even more so than the seminal A&E version, it is decidedly present, particularly in a post-wedding scene at Pemberley featuring (sigh!) a barefoot Mr. Darcy - but on mutual interests and a hearty respect for one another. When Lizzie and Darcy finally marry (as we know they must, long before they do) it is, to steal from Shakespeare (and another Jane Austen movie) a "marriage of true minds." And after all, what could be more romantic than a smart, handsome man in a cravat and a long, windblown coat?