I decided to take one for the team and audit the new Pride & Prejudice. I was expecting not to like it but despite myself actually found it a faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel.
Perhaps the most notable difference from previous versions is that the Bennet family is shown to be definitely lower-middle class, as they are in the book. Their clothes are on the dingy side and no one’s hair is perfectly combed, if not a bit greasy. In fact the first local ball they attend likewise seems more realistic than in most period pieces, full of average-looking people playing dress-up in clothes that might not be fresh from the cleaners.
Consequently, the Bennets’ house is just large enough for a family of seven, but not spacious, and it is even a bit shabby and unkempt. The house in fact is a reflection of the Bennet family: often indecorous yet completely oblivious of their appearance to others. The regular impropriety of the whole family, led by Mrs Bennet but sometimes including even Mr Bennet, is depicted throughout the movie in obvious as well as subtle ways, usually to the embarrassment of Lizzy but nevertheless accepted by her, sometimes too much so.
In the BBC adaptation the Bennet family’s unseemliness was portrayed too innocently and played for comic relief, making Darcy’s criticism of their faults seem a bit heartless rather than the accurate, if badly expressed, observation that it should be. But here, the foolishness of the Bennet girls and especially their mother, however well-intentioned, is absolutely pathetic, making you disgusted by them at the same time you pity them.
In stark contrast to the Bennets’ impropriety and the disorderliness of their home is the perfectly proportioned manor at Pemberley, whose architectural principles seem to reflect the moral stature of its proprietor. The structural order is appropriately translated by the cinematography, which introduces Pemberley House by at least four consecutive shots of Peter Greenaway-like symmetry.
The cinematography throughout the film is “quiet” but interesting, and there is a very effective long shot moving about a party that economically reveals great insights into the members of the Bennet family and their interactions with the other partygoers. Another memorable party scene shows Lizzy trying to juggle two conversations while dancing a minuet — all before her obligatory verbal jousting with Darcy (look, they’re dance-fighting!).
I went into it fully expecting to hate the originally-a-hottie-turned-professionally-haughty Keira Knightley, but I ended up liking her character or at least sympathizing with Lizzy in contrast to her ridiculous family. My only criticism of Knightley’s performance would be that she made Lizzy look too young. Admittedly I get the story confused with Little Women, but it was hard to believe Lizzy was the second oldest
when one of her younger sisters claimed to be 27 [my bad, it was Lizzy’s friend Charlotte Lucas, not her sister].
Matthew MacFadyen plays Darcy a bit more straight faced than Colin Firth, but he didn’t have much choice, since any more facial expression on his part would seem too imitative of Firth’s aloof natural sneer. By the end of the first act I had totally accepted him as Darcy, if not displacing Firth outright in my mind. He never emerges from a pond or any other body of water, but for the final scene he does seem to materialize out of the fog (which I suppose is a kind of airborne body of water) with his shirt conspicuously unbuttoned.
Lady Catherine is somewhat too obviously played by Judi Dench, channelling her Lady Bracknell of three years ago. I wished that Knightley played Lizzy’s final confrontation with Lady Catherine a bit more passive-aggressively instead of letting it escalate so quickly to the raised-voice stage, but it is only a two-hour movie. The other climactic confrontation, Darcy’s first proposal, is handled fine.
Donald Sutherland was the biggest stumbling block originally, and even by the end he still stood out the most in a movie with mostly unknown faces, but his performance did not hinder the movie. The Bennet girls are made to look so average-looking that I didn’t even recognize Jena Malone (Donnie Darko) as Lydia. Brenda Blethyn deserves special mention as the intolerable yet pitiable Mrs. Bennet, and Tom Hollander invests Mr. Collins with an earnestness that never betrays the comic relief he provides. For such a well known story, it is a remarkable accomplishment that every character feels like a real person and never a caricature, something that can’t be said even for Polanski’s commendable adaptation of Dickens this year.
At the start of my review I thought I was going to say “it was a good adaptation but I probably won’t see it again soon.” But now, after thinking about it a bit more just while writing this review, I already want to see it again.