For the fact that it remains one of the most universally popular books, Jane Austen’s deconstruction of 19th Century social politics has been the subject of surprisingly few direct filmic adaptions. Die hard fans generally proclaim the 1995 BBC mini-series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth to be the definite, though naturally a running-time of almost six hours does bring certain advantages in terms of authenticity and complexity that a feature film can never lay claim to. It was perhaps appropriate then that the reins on any new version should be given to a director with a background in television. To call the end product of Joe Wright’s labours accomplished would be an understatement, the film is both true to Austen’s original and contemporary, well able to hold its own against a multitude of British period costume dramas. And despite a few narks from a minority of Austen faithfuls, “Pride & Prejudice” did exceedingly well at the box office as well as walking off with four Oscar nominations.
Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) has but one goal in life, namely to find suitable husbands for each of her five daughters in 19th Century England. Things shape up with the arrival of two wealthy neighbours, the amiable Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and the seemingly cold and distant Mr. Darcy (Matthew McFayden). There is an immediate attraction between the former and the eldest of the Bennet daughters Jane (Rosamund Pike) while animosities are nurtured between Darcy and our heroine, the free-spirited Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). Donald Sutherland keeps an eye on proceedings as the indolent Mr. Bennet. The story with its countless twists and misunderstanding (the pride and the prejudice in other words) is well known, correct and present though significantly sped up. Several plot strands and characters have been shortened or omitted entirely but what is left is the heart of Jane Austen’s novel. The social interactions between the sexes and the subsequent and inevitable awkwardness are well conveyed throughout as is the judgemental nature of all the characters. The segments of action that have been introduced – consisting largely of horse riding, ambient locations and pathetic fallacy – flow nicely around the “sitting around” static nature of the novel. Deborah Moggach has crafted a screenplay that manages to keep the atmosphere light despite the fluctuating emotions and the film is constantly witty, sometimes overly so.
A great actress in the making, Keira Knightley is pitch perfect as Elizabeth both in looks and performance, outdoing Jennifer Ehle in both departments. Her confrontations with Darcy carry all the passion from the novel though you’ll have to be on your toes to catch every word, so fast do the syllables roll off her tongue. It is also noticeable that Knightley (whether through instruction or not one cannot tell) adds a distinctly modern touch to the character. Her behaviour and actions seem altogether more feminist than the period would have allowed but in terms of updating the character she succeeds very well. Every performance will reflect its time and here it is certainly no detriment. Newcomer McFayden isn’t quite as convincing: His Mr. Darcy focuses on the character’s restraint and awkwardness than on the (if only seeming) pride. He simply looks in need of a jolt to wake him up. The rest of the cast perform remarkably however from Blethyn, Sutherland and the gorgeous Pike to a hilarious turn by Tom Hollander as clergyman-in-search-of-wife Mr. Collins. Likewise the entire production is authentically designed and beautifully captured through the lens of Roman Osin and as always with these period films, the sumptuous costumes are a dream. The only other caveat is an alternative ending shown to U.S. audiences and available as an extra on the DVD which piles on the cheese that Wright had done so well to avoid throughout. Very likely this was pushed by the studio that did not consider the existing denouement a big enough emotional payoff. But really, not necessary.
Earning his first Oscar nomination is Italian composer Dario Marianelli. He provides a score that is on some levels predictable but certainly superior to most other soundtracks in the genre. Seamlessly incorporating some English folk songs and a piece by Henry Purcell into his original music, the soundtrack for “Pride & Prejudice” is an extremely enjoyable and relaxing listen. The main theme is conveyed in the opening track “Dawn” and features exquisite solos by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. A possible distraction for some listeners may be how the album breaks up the rhythm by inserting the lively dance music amongst the much more soothing underscore. Overall, Marianelli’s next score for Joe Wright would be the greater of the two but this score could well be taken as a great period score, on equal footing with much of Rachel Portman’s work.
“Atonement” two years later would prove Joe Wright’s masterpiece but “Pride & Prejudice” has much in its favour. The film should appeal to most sections of the Austen camp and to most viewers outside as well. At any rate it has no need to hide from the BBC version, and had it featured a better actor opposite Keira Knightley, it could very well have earned the highest marks.
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