My only qualm with Joe Wright’s version of Pride and Prejudice is almost identical to the one I had with Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist. At the end of the day, no matter how good this film is, it’s still another version of something I remain unconvinced needed another version. Oh, it’s not that there’s no room for improvement over the 1940 Robert Z. Leonard adaptation, which seems a little like it has a stick up its backside (as do most MGM period pieces, and as does nearly everything signed by Leonard). But there are a plethora of TV versions (I’d kill to see the one with Vivian Pickles as Mrs. Bennet) and the lively — if not wholly successful — Bollywood version from last year.
In other words, Jane Austen’s novel is simply a tale too often told to be all that compelling in itself at this point. So it’s up to the filmmaker to make something compelling out of it. Happily, first-time feature director Joe Wright manages that oftener than not — with the aid of a tight script by TV writer Deborah Moggach, brilliant editing by Paul Tothill (whom Wright wisely brought along from his TV film Charles II: The Power and the Passion), and a great star turn from Keira Knightley.
Previously, Knightley has been fine in supporting roles, with her performance in Love Actually being a good deal more than fine. And she was at least adequate in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Johnny Depp made everybody look good. But her efforts at carrying movies — King Arthur and Domino — have been far from successful. Partly this was because the movies were pretty much dogs, and dogs that weren’t helped by her presence or performance. Here, however, Knightley comes into her own — and without her freshness, toughness and underlying vulnerability, the film would truly be inessential, however well made.
Well made it definitely is. If you’re expecting this to be nothing but a slavishly faithful exercise in Masterpiece Theatre filmmaking, it will only take the length of the movie’s astonishing opening, with the camera effortlessly following Elizabeth Bennet (Knightley) through the yard, up to and into the house, to make you start rethinking that notion. And if there are any lingering doubts, the beautifully shot — and even more beautifully edited — dance will dispel them. (Ironically, the dance scene is far better musical filmmaking than anything in Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice — only this isn’t actually a musical, and that was!) Moreover, the decision to stage Elizabeth and Jane’s (Rosamund Pike, Die Another Day) post-dance bedtime conversation under the sheets was positively inspired. In fact, nearly every choice in the film has a similar feel of being innately right.
Yes, this is still the story of the socially inept, marriage-minded Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn, Beyond the Sea) trying to fob her five daughters off on any reasonably well-off man who will have them, despite the best efforts of Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) to take a more human (albeit distracted) approach. And, yes, this is still the story of loathe at first sight between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden, Enigma) that slowly turns into grudging respect and, finally, love.
The film faithfully reproduces all the major points of the source novel, but it doesn’t fret over literary respectability — that’s the key to why this Pride and Prejudice works. Wright approaches the material without the expected reverence due a respected literary classic, but as if it were a brand-new work that no one knew anything about that would make a good movie. It’s an approach that results in a very contemporary-feeling period film — something that doesn’t happen every day, but ought to happen more often.
Whatever reservations one might feel about the need for another Pride and Prejudice, this is real filmmaking. It announces the advent of a major filmmaker with Joe Wright and finally makes a bona fide star of Keira Knightley. Rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke