This version of Pride and Prejudice is not well loved by die-hard Austen fans. It changes things and speeds up the timeline of the book to a brisk and unbelievable pace. Keira Knightley is too flirty and Matthew Macfadyen isn’t up to the role, or so the common complaints go. For my part, I love this movie. It’s not my favorite version, but that’s about the worst I can say about it.
The script takes liberties with the characters and the social edicts of the time, it’s true, but in my opinion, all is done for the greater purpose of making the story relatable. The film manages to translate the feel of the book to something modern audiences will easily understand without losing the essence of the time period. It’s actually quite impressive.
For instance, an early scene shows Lizzy and Charlotte Lucas gossiping under the bleachers at a dance. Miss Elizabeth Bennet would, of course, never do anything like that, but the result of the scene is that Charlotte and Lizzy’s closeness is established instantly without taking time away from moving the plot along. In a similar fashion, Lizzy’s flirtation with Wickham rapidly discloses her romantic interest in him and her open weeping in front of Darcy shows how comfortable she is with him, all without taking up valuable time.
The idea continues with costuming and set direction. Miss Bingley’s gown for the Netherfield ball is an excellent example. I don’t believe spaghetti straps were invented at the time, but the different fashion of her dress communicates how fashionable she was in comparison with the more old-fashioned dresses of the Bennet sisters. Netherfield is decorated sparsely, in line with the relative minimalism that is considered elegant today. A fashionable home in Regency period England would be overrun with art, statues, and other decorative objects, but today less is more, thus the minimalistic Netherfield looks far more fancy and rich to us than the cluttered Bennet house.
This is also the most overtly romantic of all the Pride and Prejudices. Elizabeth and Darcy in the field at dawn is like a dream. It’s clearly a departure from Austen’s original text, but, let’s face it, we read/watch Pride and Prejudice for the romance. Its light satire and well crafted characters are all well and good, but we love the damn thing for Elizabeth and Darcy. What’s the harm in acknowledging that and giving the audience a bit of what they want?
The film boasts my favorite Bennet family. Brenda Blethyn (thankfully) dials back the annoying on Mrs. Bennet. She is still an embarrassment to her older girls, but she is less obnoxious to the audience than the Mrs. Bennet of the 1995 miniseries. All the Bennet women, in fact, are fantastic. Rosamund Pike plays Jane who is (for once) actually prettier than Elizabeth. The story makes a rather big deal of Jane being the prettiest one, but in virtually every other film version, it seems the casting director couldn’t help but make the heroine the pretty one. I like the levels of pretty Jane and Elizabeth have in this movie. There’s no denying Keira Knightley is gorgeous, but Rosamund Pike is more traditionally beautiful. Pike’s Jane is very good. She isn’t as annoyingly perfect as other Janes. It might be my imagination, but I think she plays her a little dim as well, which works.
Kitty (a pre-pixie, pre-peroxide Carey Mulligan, if you can believe it) is also slightly different than in other versions. She is more of a hanger-on to Lydia than a partner in crime. Jena Malone’s Lydia is less obnoxious than other versions, although I don’t think she quite nails the character. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone has. Julia Sawalha (1995) came the the closest, but she is just a little too annoying. For me, Mary Bennet (Talulah Riley in her first film role) is the true standout. While other Marys have simply been punchlines, Riley brings something very real to the character. She feels left out by her sisters and is desperate to carve out a niche for herself in the family and in local society. She is always the overlooked one.
I must admit I haven’t liked Donald Sutherland since I found out Joss Whedon disliked Donald Sutherland. And yes, before you ask, I would jump off a bridge if Joss Whedon told me to. That said, Sutherland’s mumbly performance of Mr. Bennet might be the worst I’ve seen. He did get the character’s laziness down, but in certain scenes, he is almost indecipherable. Enunciation. It’s a thing.
Despite Keira Knightley’s excellent performance, Jennifer Ehle remains my favorite Lizzy. She’s just truer to the character. As far as Matthew Macfadyen goes, his performance is flawless excepting the fact that he is not Colin Firth. Had the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice never been made, I think Macfadyen might have gone down in history as the quintessential Mr. Darcy. Sadly, he lost the crown to Firth by a decade. You just can’t do better than Colin Firth, sorry.
As for the more supporting characters, the Bingleys and Georgiana Darcy are good, but I prefer those in the 1995 miniseries. They just don’t get enough screen time here to really stand out. I do like the goofiness Simon Woods brought to the role of Bingley and the mean girl-ittude of Kelly Reilly’s Caroline. As for Tamzin Merchant (Georgiana), I still haven’t forgiven her for how annoying she was in The Tudors.
Judi Dench is a god, which should be news to no one. The only better Lady Catherine I can imagine is Maggie Smith. It should be noted that both are way too old for the role (remember Lady Catherine is supposed to have a daughter in her early twenties) but to hell with that. When one can fit Judi Dench into a movie, one does.
Speaking of excellence in casting, for once (FOR ONCE!) supposedly plain Charlotte Lucas is not drop-dead gorgeous. Claudie Blakley is adorable and excellent in the role. She is completely likable but adds Charlotte’s desperation for a husband in undertones. That’s largely unseen in other versions. Other Charlottes come across as man-stealing bitches. Most characters in the film have an earnestness about them, even the redoubtable Mr. Collins. He is less of a punchline here than in other film versions, even than in the book. He is still obnoxious, god knows, but it’s dialed down to a believable level.
Bits and Pieces:
Many reviewers criticized the movies for using an ampersand instead of the word “and,” accusing the filmmakers of deviating from Austen’s standards. These reviewers should take a look at Austen’s personal letters. She uses ampersands constantly.
Emma Thompson did uncredited rewrites on the script. Love her.
The soundtrack to this movie is one of the most sinfully beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I listen to it all the time. It’s particularly good for bubble baths.
The Bennet girls rushing to be ready to greet Bingley and Darcy and then pretending that they’ve just been sitting calmly
Bingley practicing proposing to Jane (kindly played by Darcy)
Elizabeth and Darcy in the field
Darcy pacing outside the Bennets’ house as he waits for Mr. Bennet’s word of approval. Darcy is cutest when he’s at his most awkward. This goes for all versions.
four out of four cold hands