It's a faithful big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I'm a huge fan of Jane Austen, while furthermore of all her books this is the one best-suited to modern adaptation. Obviously there's been compression, but they've retained all the plot essentials and turned it into a lovely-looking movie with plenty of well-known British actors. In other words, it's thoroughly enjoyable. I had a great time.
A further handicap the film faces is the other celebrated adaptations we've seen of the same material. You're always going to be up against it when your competition includes Sir Laurence Olivier in 1940
and Colin Firth in the rightly famous 1995 BBC mini-series. I have my quibbles about this version, but the 1940
version is flawed too and at least this modern one manages to be good enough to sustain comparison. It's certainly better than the likes of Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow and the 1995 Mansfield Park with Frances O'Connor and Harold Pinter.
That said, it seems a little thin. Not cripplingly so, but there's something hurried about it. It's missing the languidness that one associates with Austen adaptations, instead bustling through the book with bracing energy. The beginning in particular gets treated roughly, although the film eventually settles down into a more natural rhythm. There's a lot to be said for this approach. It's less genteel and more dynamic than you'd expect. Even the all-important dancing aren't the usual prissy mincing, instead having violins blasting out folk music and authentic country dancing that's at times reminiscent of morris.
The editing and direction are busy, reluctant to let a moment linger. Even important scenes are sometimes slightly thrown away, rather than being telegraphed in the usual fashion. Mr Darcy's proposal, for instance, gets underway almost by stealth, although the scene soon becomes more intense. Admittedly I miss Ang Lee's knack with those Austenesque scenes in which everyone's talking about anything but the things that matter, but this is a valid approach too.
All of this is reasonable. Unfortunately it puts a lot of weight on the actors, who find themselves largely stripped of assistance and left to make an impression either immediately or not at all. Some achieve this in style. Dame Judi Dench has of course become my favourite Lady Catherine de Bourgh, while Donald Sutherland astonished me as Mr Bennet. He looks like a scruffy old gypsy! When we first meet him, he's unshaven with a positive mane of hair. Later on donning a three-pointed hat, he turns into a highwayman. Furthermore he gives off so much personality whenever he appears on screen, no matter how briefly. I love the way he looks up from a newspaper, for instance. The definitive Mr Bennet for me will always be the one in the 1995 BBC version, but Sutherland creates a strong and very different take on the character. He's flawed and a little seedy.
Other characters don't fare nearly as well, though. The biggest victim of this approach is Brenda Blethyn's Mrs Bennet, who's basically a different character with the same name and a few of the same lines. She's not silly or self-obsessed! She's quite sensible, in fact. She's capable of making herself look ridiculous in company, but basically they've turned Austen's unforgettable original into a minor and fairly bland supporting character.
Tom Hollander's Mr Collins is similarly not all he could have been. Oh, he's good. I liked him. I even laughed. However he's no showstopper, which is what Mr Collins can easily be.
There's one big innovation here. They treat the characters more seriously than you might be used to. It's sometimes a little startling, like seeing someone properly for the first time. Darcy here really is the miserable old bugger that Elizabeth has always been saying he is. Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier made it seem more like a front. I was even more astonished though by Rosamund Pike's Jane. You know the way Elizabeth always says Jane doesn't show her feelings? This has traditionally been done by making her a bit dim and shallow, which if nothing else is appropriate for someone in love with Mr Bingley. However here in contrast we have a Jane who'll lie to everyone around her and go into denial rather than admit to feelings of love and loss. Oh, and the completely irrelevant role of the friend who marries Mr Collins gets a speech out of nowhere that blew me away. It's blunter and more honest about these women's economic realities than I ever expected to see in an Austen adaptation.
All that is genuinely impressive. In a sense, I suspect this might have more influence on future Austen adaptations than its celebrated predecessors, since no one's ever going to copy the 1940
version while the existence of the 1995 BBC version was actually a headache for this film's producers. Colin Firth's shadow in particular made the casting of Darcy problematic.
Sometimes this makes the film seem a little harsh on its characters. Bingley is clearly an imbecile, although Simon Woods does this so brilliantly that you'll fall in love with him anyway. This isn't a particularly funny film, but he made me laugh. The younger Bennet sisters are as empty-headed as we've always been told, but hitherto I'd always thought that was their father and/or Austen herself getting a carried away. Oh, and they really make Darcy look like a bastard.
However what of the central romance? It's okay. Apparently the film's U.S. ending was ranked as one Entertainment Weekly's greatest movie endings of all time, but I wasn't so taken with it. Jane's acceptance of Bingham is lovely, but Elizabeth talking to her father was actually more moving for me than her preceding scene with Darcy. The two main leads are good, but not perfect:
Keira Knightley isn't my favourite Elizabeth Bennet, never seeming intelligent and having a remarkably charmless delivery when it comes to Austen's wit. She pulls a face that makes her look like a smug piranha. However I liked her once the plot got under way, once she'd dropped the mannerisms and was engaging more directly and honestly with the situation. I particularly admire her moral strength. Austen can sometimes seem precious in her moral judgements, but Knightley really sells the integrity of the character.
Matthew Macfadyen meanwhile is playing a Darcy who's not easy to like. He's awkward, sullen and so uncomfortably direct in his speech that at one point the film gets a laugh out of it. The film's first half goes to town on trying to make the character look bad, after which the second half could perhaps have gone further in making him look virtuous after all.
There's still more to say about the other cast members, mind you. Rupert Friend is a slightly surprising Wickham, for once being genuinely young and dashing. The lad's practically a teenager. Then there's the glorious Dame Judi Dench, showing me the first Lady Catherine de Bourgh I've ever seen who's genuinely fearsome rather than a bit of a joke. I adored her early scenes. Again, we're having the characters of this classic novel treated with more integrity than usual... I think "played straight" is the phrase I'm looking for. Mind you, having said that I was disappointed in the scene where Lady Catherine orders Elizabeth not to marry Darcy. That's one of the few scenes here that's visibly been damaged by the pace of the film. If you've got Judi Dench and a classic confrontation like that, for goodness sake, give her a bit more room to breathe!
Oh, and there's a minor role for Harriet Jones... whoops, Penelope Wilton. She was doing this film at the same time as Doctor Who.
All in all, I really enjoyed this film. I don't like everything about it, but I think it's strong and clear enough in what it's doing for these to be regarded as conscious artistic choices. Note the way for instance that a few exchanges get blasted out at the speed you'll sometimes get with Shakespeare actors playing the classics. It's as if you're expected to know the words already.
It looks lovely. The cinematography is full of warm autumnal colours, drenched in sunlight so rich that it looks more like firelight. These certainly aren't the definitive versions of the characters, but sometimes they're a clear improvement on those in the adaptation that people do generally regard as definitive (the 1995 BBC one). My least favourite is Mrs Bennet, but again she's an example of even the comedy characters being taken seriously. She's almost dangerous rather than silly.
It's still a bit thin, though.