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Pride & Prejudice (2005)

DIRECTOR: Joe Wright

CAST: Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Rosamund Pike, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Simon Woods, Tom Hollander, Jena Malone, Carey Mulligan, Talulah Riley, Judi Dench, Kelly Reilly, Rupert Friend

REVIEW:

While some will still consider the three-hour 1995 TV miniseries (starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) to be the definitive onscreen adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach (and uncredited script doctor Emma Thompson, who starred in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Austen’s Sense & Sensibility) have done about as good of a job as anyone could expect of adapting the dense material into a two hour format. While various subplots and supporting characters have been condensed, Pride & Prejudice remains a handsome and lively adaptation that sacrifices neither the story’s core themes and heart, nor the central romance.

As fans of the story and its various adaptations will know, the plot centers on the love/hate dynamic between feisty Lizzie Bennett (Keira Knightley) and brooding Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). The Bennett clan’s matriarch (Brenda Blethyn) is anxious to marry her daughters off to secure their financial future—as there is no direct male heir, their country estate is slated to fall to cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander)—but Lizzie, the second-in-line in a large family of sisters (Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone, Carey Mulligan, Talulah Riley), refuses to be married off to a man she doesn’t love. When she first crosses paths with the taciturn Darcy at a ball, the two hold each other in seeming disdain, especially when Lizzie overhears a seemingly insulting remark about herself from Darcy. Her low opinion of Darcy is only amplified by his cool demeanor and damning information about his moral character she receives from a would-be suitor, soldier Lieutenant Wickham (Rupert Friend). However, as events conspire to repeatedly draw them into each other’s orbit, Lizzie may eventually find her first impression challenged. Subplots abound, including Lizzie’s sister Jane (Pike) navigating a twisty-turny would-be courtship of her own with Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), and Lizzie fending off a proposal from Collins and eventually butting heads with Darcy’s powerful aristocratic aunt, Lady Catherine (Judi Dench).

As is inevitable in a two hour adaptation of something as chock-full of subplots as Pride & Prejudice (an hour shorter than the 1995 TV version), some of those subplots and supporting characters are given short shrift. The secondary romance between Jane and Bingley remains, though it unsurprisingly plays second fiddle to that of Lizzie and Darcy, and Wickham and Lady Catherine have only two scenes apiece. On the other hand, the central ambiguous dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy is transferred intact, and much of Austen’s witty dialogue remains (though, between the British accents onhand and the period prose, some of it may be difficult for modern audiences to follow). Lizzie is better-developed than Darcy, but that’s just a by-product of the ambiguity about his character that is a key element of the plot. Period details, costuming, and production design is impeccable, and fittingly for what is essentially a period costume drama romantic comedy-drama, the tone is light and frothy. Viewers who relish these kinds of Victorian period romances should enjoy themselves.

Keira Knightley gives a high-spirited interpretation of the tempestuous Lizzie, a smart and independent-minded heroine who refuses to be married off like cattle and whose same willfulness that makes her more than a passive Victorian lady can also lead her to quick and harsh judgments. Matthew Macfadyen is more stoic and by design doesn’t command the screen with the same forcefulness, but conveys hints of conflict and vulnerability behind Darcy’s closed-off demeanor. In supporting roles are Rosamund Pike as Jane, Simon Woods as the awkward, affable Bingley, Tom Hollander supplying a little low-key comic relief as the sycophantic Collins, and Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as the frantically matchmaking Mrs. Bennett and the laid-back, sometimes-confused Mr. Bennett. Judi Dench puts her stern demeanor to good effect as the chilly Lady Catherine; she only has a couple of scenes, but makes an impression. The other Bennett sisters are not well-defined; Carey Mulligan and Talulah Riley are relegated to doing little more than scurrying around giggling.

This version of Pride & Prejudice comes out a decade later than the craze of Austen adaptations, some straight and some modernized, that came out in the mid-1990s, but it can stand in worthy company alongside other such respectable entries as Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility. Some Austen purists may grumble about the inevitable condensing, but for anyone else, it’s a lively, joyful, and delightful ride.

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