Film Score: Dario Marianelli Cinematography: Roman Osin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench
Jane Austin is an author whose works have been made and remade over the years into any number of films and mini-series. But to my mind, it has taken modern filmmakers to find a way into the soul of her works and capture not only the period, but the spirit of her romances, and her abundant humor. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have certainly done that with Pride and Prejudice. While many might look at the Colin Firth mini-series on the BBC as the definitive version--and I have to agree that I do as well--there’s an undeniable freshness to the liberties that this production takes with Austin’s text. As I wrote about the miniseries Birdsong, what feature films do so well is compression, emphasizing all of the elements that readers love in great storytelling so that they have maximum impact and entertainment value. What Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility did for that story is the same thing that happened here--almost literally. And while for some purists the breathless pace and necessary paring down of the plot robs the story of its depth, if the viewer is able to look at the film as its own separate work of art there is much to be admired.
The classic story of Elizabeth Bennet and her misjudgment of Mr. Darcy, hardly needs to be retold. Donald Sutherland plays the matriarch of a family of five girls, including Keira Knightley, Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan. When he dies, with no male heir to pass on the estate to, the girls will be homeless--unless they can marry. And while Matthew Macfadyen’s excessive pride causes Knightley’s prejudice to keep them apart, unlike the miniseries there is still a sense of their mutual attraction throughout the entire film. What leaps out from the screen in this production is a realism that is lacking by comparison in all others. One only has to look at the first ball scene to see that. Instead of the ultra-choreographed, chorus-line type dancing that we’re used to seeing in these period dramas, this is an actual party, with people actually dancing, having fun. The precision is there, the lockstep moves are there, but characters also carry on conversation and move in and out of the dance at will. It not only looks real, it feels real. And when women go walking outside they come in with their skirts wet and muddy, which Wright actually lingers on in one scene. As with so many recent historical dramas the production design by Sarah Greenwood, who worked on the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, is outstanding, as is the costume design by Jacqueline Durran, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards that year.
Ultimately, however, it’s the acting that makes the film and Keira Knightley carries the production in superb fashion, just as she would later do in The Duchess and Anna Karenina. She brings an elegance to the character of Elizabeth Bennet that is captivating and a fierce independence that lights up the screen. Matthew Macfadyen is equally good in the difficult role of Mr. Darcy, who must convey his utter attraction to Elizabeth to the audience without showing it to the characters surrounding him. Of course Judy Dench is her usual stolid, dependable self in portraying the overbearing matriarch of Darcy’s family. But the real surprise is Donald Sutherland who does a passable job as Mr. Bennett, though it is a pity that they couldn’t have landed someone like Tom Wilkinson for the role. All of the supporting cast are well selected and do a great job of bringing the characters to life in a completely believable way. The real standout is Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins. Where David Bamber was simply an oafish bore in the miniseries, Hollander’s small stature gives him an insect-like insidiousness that is fantastic. Kelly Reilly is also able to outshine Anna Chancellor’s performance as the scheming Caroline Bingley. If there’s a weak spot to the cast it’s probably Rupert Friend as Wickham, who lacks the infectious charm of Adrian Lukis in the miniseries.
Some will argue that this is a “modern” interpretation, that the characters in the book aren’t nearly so animated, and that is true. But as I have often stated in other reviews, a filmmaker doesn’t need to be beholden to the written word. Film is an art form all its own, with an audience that dictates a different type of expression than the audience for the written word, and it is the great director who can tap into that form and make it work the way it’s supposed to. Joe Wright certainly is that. His style isn’t for everyone, but there’s no denying that he has a unique vision that is able to look at a story in a fresh way and actually covey it on the screen. He would work with Knightley several more times, on Atonement, The Duchess, and Anna Karenina, the last far more of an acquired taste than the first two. Everybody has their favorite versions of Jane Austin, and mine is without a doubt Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. Again, as a feature film it is forced to eliminate some of the original novel, but it brings a modern energy and a nuance of character that make the story something new. But I’m also a fan of the film in which Thompson wrote some dialogue for without credit, Pride and Prejudice. It’s a terrific addition to a canon that, centuries later, still has much to say about the human condition.