Jane. Austen. Two words which when taken together strike fear and apprehension into the hearts of men everywhere. Possibly the most inaccessible author to the male species, conversely Austen’s work is celebrated and revered to an almost religious degree by ladies the world over. What exactly this epic tale of unlikely romance in the face of Georgian class-issues does for a woman’s psyche is still beyond me, and no amount of curiosity makes most men brave enough to go near any of her work – something even other movies, for example You’ve Got Mail, have acknowledged in the past.
So when I was given the task of reviewing the latest movie version of what is possibly Austen’s most famous novel, I walked into the theatre ready to loathe every long bodice-filled minute of it. To my surprise however, while I can’t claim to share the same frighteningly… “passionate” (for want of a more appropriate phrase) reaction two of my female viewing companions seemed to experience from watching it, Joe Wright’s interpretation of Pride & Prejudice wasn’t the pretentious bore I was expecting.
As I’ve mentioned, doubtless most women who read this review will know the story backwards and will email me to point out all my errors, but for the benefit of you men folk out there I will try my best to give you the lo down.
The Bennets are a moderately well-off, if slightly uncouth family living in late 18th century England. Mr. Bennet (Sutherland) is getting on in years and if he dies his estate will go entirely to a distant cousin, the weasly Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander). The only way to prevent this is if at least one of his daughters marries well, a goal which Mrs. Bennet (Blethyn) is determined to achieve at any cost. So, when the aristocratic Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) arrives in the area with his equally well-bred friend Mr. Darcy (MacFadyen), the women go into romance overdrive. While shy eldest sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) falls for the bumbling Bingley, the more independent and head-strong Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) clashes with the seemingly aloof and inaccessible Mr. Darcy. Could the verbal fencing between Elizabeth and Darcy be hiding their true feelings, and if it is, can it and the other sisters’ relationships survive the rigid and snobbish class structure of the time?
This is director Joe Wright’s first big screen outing, though you’d never guess it. On the other hand, it’d be hard to go far wrong on a novel adapted for stage and screen so many times before. Wright and scribe Deborah Moggach (with a little help from period movie expert Emma Thompson) have made a clever and funny film which once you swallow your apprehension, is far more engaging than you’d expect and far more interesting than most other movies set in the same era. It helps that Wright and his cinematographer Roman Osin have created what could possibly be one of the best looking, CGI-free movies of the year. Wright makes full use of the stunning landscapes of the English countryside, while Osin helps bring the right mood to every shot. Whether it’s a warm, sunny, summer day or a cold, dewy, spring morning, Pride & Prejudice looks amazing.
But all the nice scenery in the world can’t save a movie so heavily entrenched in character study, so it is with a lot of apprehension that people have taken to the idea of Keira Knightley in the lead role of Elizabeth. Fortunately, Knightley copes well in the part, bringing life to the only interesting one of the Bennet siblings. While that wacky grin that she can’t seem to keep from her face for much of the movie occasionally gets a little grating, she centers what is going on around her, which could otherwise have teetered between too stuffy (the verbose talky scenes) or too silly (Whenever Mrs. Bennet is on-screen). Keira manages to convincingly convey the struggle between her attraction to Darcy and her contempt for his apparent unwavering, humorless snobbery.
Matthew MacFadyen will only be familiar to those who have seen the BBC TV show “MI-5” on A&E. MacFadyen had his work cut out for him here in the role of Mr. Darcy, following in the footsteps of both Sir Laurence Olivier and more infamously Colin Firth, whom women worldwide unilaterally swooned over during the airings of the BBC “Pride & Prejudice” mini-series. MacFayden takes admirably to the task, bringing both the authoritative stoic arrogance of Darcy’s outward appearance and the hapless awkwardness he suffers while trying to deal with his true feelings perfectly. But I am a man and cannot judge the power of the Darcy properly, so the votes are in and two out of two Pride & Prejudice loving women assure me that, rather controversially, he is a far better Darcy than Mr. Firth.
It is veteran actor Donald Sutherland, who provides some of the movie’s best moments as the hen-pecked, world-weary Mr. Bennet. Bennet realizes the importance of his family’s predicament, but at the same time only wants what is best for his daughters. Sutherland steals every scene he is in with his laconic dry wit and contrasts Brenda Blethyn’s hyperactive, one-track-minded Mrs. Bennet nicely.
If there are any real problem to be found it is in the casting of film’s the more minor characters. The actor cast as Darcy’s ex-friend Wickham appears to have been won his role more because of his passing resemblance to Orlando Bloom rather than due to any acting prowess. The supposed relationship between Jane and Bingley is so underplayed and chemistry-free that I had trouble believing they were really in love, never mind the characters in the movie. Also, aside from Jane and Elizabeth, the Bennet sisters are quite bland and seem, one subplot aside, to exist in the movie solely to keep up the same running joke.
There is also a small pacing issue at the end of the second act where the movie starts to drag and then suddenly rushes forward towards a conclusion as the pressure of trying to compress the rest of the novel into the remaining running time starts to catch up with the story’s deliberate pace. While I appreciate that a lot of sacrifices have to be made in translating such a large novel into a 2 hour movie, there are some places where you wonder if maybe the reason the mini-series was so successful is that it didn’t have to rush.
Pride & Prejudice still isn’t a movie for everyone. Ruffled shirts and bodices fill the screen at every opportunity. People talk in that protracted, grating, Olde English rambling, where 15 words and 30 syllables are used when half that would do. Romance and love are the order of the day, and like a long-distance runner it jogs along for much of the course then suddenly makes a mad dash at the end. Despite these flaws there is an enjoyable and occasionally very funny movie to be had here. Women will love it more than men, that goes without saying, but the many many men who will no doubt get dragged along to see it may, like me, come out surprised. Hey, I’m not racing to the library and picking up the novel, nor am I about to lose my mind and rent Sense and Sensibility, but I didn’t come away feeling like I’d lost part of my masculinity. That’s good enough for me.