Fans of Jane Austen’s classic romance novel will relish its latest adaptation by director Joe Wright, who does an admirable job making his film accessible to a new generation of Mr. Darcy admirers.
This timeless love story traces the budding relationship between the independent and outspoken Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) and the unbearably proud yet undeniably wealthy Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden). At first, the only thing the two have in common is their mutual contempt for one another: Elizabeth finds Darcy pretentious and disagreeable, while he scorns her low-class family and upbringing.
In the meantime, the arrival of the affluent and eligible Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) — accompanied by his friend Mr. Darcy and his arrogant sister Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly) — has sent the Bennett family into a matrimonial flurry, as Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn) determines to doll up and match up as many of her daughters as possible.
Elizabeth’s older sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), the supposed most handsome and elegant of the five Bennett girls, catches the eye of the adorably awkward Bingley, and their confused courtship soon becomes entangled with that of Darcy and Elizabeth. An encounter with the flirtatious Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend) also flusters Elizabeth, distracting her from Darcy’s inexplicable attraction and even causing her to call Darcy’s moral character into question. However, their war of wits and clash of personalities provide the spark for the unwilling romance that develops, as misunderstandings are resolved and passions confronted in a series of unexpected events.
Wright’s adaptation serves to highlight some of the novel’s most important themes. His portrayal of Mrs. Bennett as a nervous and excitable mother of five is sympathetic, demonstrating that her desire to marry off her girls is as much a question of financial security as of Georgian romantic notions. Mrs. Bennett, while a decidedly annoying character, constantly reminds the audience that, for a young woman in Georgian England, marriage can make the difference between life in comfort and life on the streets.
The plotline faithfully adheres to Austen’s story, give or take sundry adjustments required in the process of adapting any book for the screen. The character of Mr. Wickham is less prominent in this version, which limits the development of the tension between him and Darcy that Austen fans will remember from the novel. Other aspects of the storyline unabashedly appeal to modern moviegoers’ taste for sappy romance. For example, Knightley and MacFayden’s early morning rendezvous in a misty meadow seems slightly contrived, but the intensity of their passionate encounter fortunately permits audiences to look past the artifice of the scene.
Strong peripheral characters bring an unexpected amount of presence to the film, making the movie’s smaller roles some of its most memorable. The well-intended but obscenely obsequious Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) injects some surprising humor into the film, with even his most ridiculous lines delivered in so serious a manner that there can be no doubt Elizabeth will reject his “tempting” proposal of marriage halfway through the movie. The other truly unforgettable role is Judi Dench’s nasty turn as the haughty heiress Lady Catherine de Bourgh — after all, no British period film would be complete without Dame Judi’s ice queen sneer.
The one main criticism of the movie is that, quite frankly, Knightley is nearly too beautiful to play the part of Elizabeth, who in the novel is forced to rely upon her intelligence and humor to win the heart of the impervious Mr. Darcy. In the film, however, it is Knightley who outshines the supposedly more attractive Pike; mix in her spunky girlish charm and fun-loving spirit, and it’s a wonder that Bingley even bothers with the oldest Bennett daughter at all. For a girl described by Darcy as “tolerable, but not handsome enough” to tempt him, Knightley bewitches the audience “body and soul” well before she does the same to her leading man.
While many female viewers will no doubt lament Colin Firth’s failure to reprise his role from the 1995 television mini-series, they should not underestimate MacFayden as the new face of Mr. Darcy. The character’s arrogance comes easily to MacFayden and melts away just as naturally throughout the movie, making his transformation from conceited aristocrat to adoring gentleman all the more appealing. Don’t be surprised if by the film’s end MacFayden has captured just as many — if not more — hearts than the lovable Mr. Firth.
Over all, with its bold characters and witty dialogue set against sweeping scenes of the English countryside, Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice” is a sweet testament to romance and all its accompanying confusion that will leave viewers laughingly admitting that, like Elizabeth and her friends, “we are all fools in love.”