My, how the marketing for the sumptuous new production of “Pride & Prejudice” fibs! Focus Features describes the film on its Web site as “the first movie version of the story in 65 years,” which is blatantly untrue. Clearly they are trying to make us think we haven’t seen this story over and over again when really we have.
In fact, this is the third movie version of the story just in the past two years. There was a Bollywood version called “Bride & Prejudice,” and another version that retained the title but moved the story to modern-day Utah. There have also been five BBC-produced incarnations (TV movies or mini-series), in 1952, 1958, 1967, 1980 and 1995.
It’s the 1995 production that Focus would most like us to forget, of course. That’s the one with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, the five-hour mini-series that has made countless women swoon and inspired two Bridget Jones novels and movies. To many, Firth’s Mr. Darcy is the epitome of a classical English romantic figure, the standard by which all other suitors must be measured. Many is the man who has been deemed unworthy by a woman for failing to be as dreamy as Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.
Do not underestimate the importance of that performance! Obviously Focus Features has not, given their vain attempt to make us overlook it. (For the record, a more accurate statement would have been: “The first theatrical film version in 65 years to retain the original title and setting.”)
I’ve never had to watch the Colin Firth version, and I’m no lady, but I can tell you that the new Joe Wright-directed version is splendid, a handsome and romantic retelling of the 1813 Austen novel and a reasonably faithful one, too. If one is willing, one can be utterly swept away by the performances of Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen, who play Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy with no apparent fear of being unable to fill previously worn shoes.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is set in England at a time when society was at its most prim and when the most essential thing — indeed, the only reasonable thing — a woman could do was to get married. Her husband was her life: In “Pride & Prejudice,” Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) calls her husband (Donald Sutherland) “Mr. Bennet,” yet does so lovingly, not out of coldness or obligation.
The Bennets have five daughters, of which only two, Jane (Rosamund Pike) and Elizabeth, are of marriageable age, but that does not stop the three younger ones from becoming just as excited when a bachelor named Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) moves into the village. Bingley, a smiling, decent fellow, takes an interest in Jane, while Elizabeth and Bingley’s friend Mr. Darcy have a conversation and instantly clash. An aristocrat, he finds her middle-class family (and indeed the entire town) beneath him, while she finds his elitism repellant. Which can mean only one thing: By film’s end, they will be in each other’s arms.
In the meantime, there is an abundance of chaste, respectable romance in the impossibly lush English countryside, which is gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Roman Osin. The beautiful costumes and production design add a flavor of authenticity, too. You could fall in love with the film based solely on its looks.
Ah, but then you’d be missing the very delightful performances and the film’s twee, pleasant humor. Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn are a perfectly charming pair of Bennet parents, with Mister bemused by his daughters’ man-hungry exuberance and Missus utterly caught up in it. And Judi Dench has a wicked turn as the imperious snob Lady Catherine. She is the sort of character you want to see hit in the face with a pie, though sadly such does not occur in the film.
And what of Elizabeth and Darcy? Matthew MacFadyen seems smoldering and romantic enough, though I highly doubt he will make the ladies weak at the knees the way Colin Firth did, if for no other reason than Firth had five hours to do it while MacFadyen only has two. But he pulls a neat trick, acting-wise: Early on, he is sullen and aloof enough to inspire genuine dislike — a great risk, considering we are eventually supposed to love him. Yet sure enough, when the time comes for him to profess his love to Elizabeth, his stoic demeanor gives way, slightly but perceptibly, and it is possible to see why Elizabeth might love him in return.
As for Keira Knightley, I confess to having mostly disregarded her in the past, but now I am officially onboard as an admirer. Her Elizabeth is a marvelously likable heroine — strong, good-natured and vulnerable, with a toothsome smile that is positively bewitching. It is not hard at all to see why Mr. Darcy loves her. When all the obstacles between them are eventually removed, you’d have to be stone dead not to have your heart melt at least a little bit.
B+ (2 hrs., 7 min.; )