It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best romantic novel in the English language must perpetually be in need of a remake.
And it is equally true that movie adaptations of Pride and Prejudice face an odious dilemma. On the one side, there are the “Janeites,” those passionate Austen-ophiles who would prefer that her stories be read, preferably by candlelight, the better to appreciate every one of Austen’s exquisitely chosen words. For those fans, any new version has to compete with the previous filmed versions as well, mostly recently the acclaimed 1995 miniseries, which even the most ardent Jane-ites tolerate, partly because it had the space to include just about every detail from the book, and partly because Colin Firth was such an estimable Darcy.
On the other side are those who are allergic to “marriage plot” stories set in drawing rooms in the olden days. Discussions of who is asked to dance at which ball make them long for some nice alien or explosion to make things more exciting.
The good news is that this version will be satisfactory to both sides. Yes, there are heart-breaking omissions, as must be necessary in any 2-hour version. And no, there are no aliens or explosions. But it is a very faithful adaptation that bursts out of the drawing room into an outside world filled with mud and chickens — and passion.
Elizabeth Bennett (Kiera Knightly) is the second of five daughters. Her older sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), as sweet as she is pretty, always sees the best in everyone, is her closest confidante. But her foolish, tactless mother (Brenda Blethyn) and affectionate but disengaged father (Donald Southerland) don’t seem to realize that their two youngest daughters, Lydia (Jenna Malone) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan) are not just young and frivolous. They are dangerously silly, with no sense of propriety or honor. All they care about is going to parties with dashing officers in red coats.
The story begins with three important arrivals. The endlessly benign and highly eligible Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) has taken a house near the Bennett home, and Mrs. Bennett is determined that he must marry one of her daughters. Mr. Bingley has brought with him his closest friend, the haughty Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), a guy whose most inviting expression is his glower. And, shortly after, Mr. Bennett’s cousin arrives. He is the unctuously obsequious Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), a clergyman on the estate of the very grand Lady Catherine de Bourg (Dame Judi Dench), and he never tires of talking about how very grand it and she are.
Mr. Collins is determined to marry, and his ever-aware-of-what-is-proper thought is that it should be one of the Bennett girls, as the estate’s entailment requires that he inherit the property after Mr. Bennett’s death. (It was common in that era for all real estate to be kept together and inherited by the closest male relative.)
All of this provides many opportunities for love and misunderstanding, for excruciating embarrassment and transcendent displays of honor and sensitivity, for marriage proposals declined and accepted, and of course for happily ever endings, even for those not entirely deserving of them.
Director Joe Wright makes the camera energetic, but never distracting, intimate, but never intrusive. He creates a sense of freshness and immediacy through movement and through a vivid, lively world not just in the drawing rooms and at the balls but with chickens and pigs in the dooryard and muddy skirt hems after long walks through the fields. The outdoor scenes are breathtaking and the settings, particularly the magnificent Pemberly, are as vital as the human characters. He changes a display of paintings in the book to a display of sculpture. The smooth white marble is wonderfully tactile. But Wright really takes our breath away with a stunningly masterful staging of a ball, combining the intricate dance and interlaced conversations in a three-dimensional roundelay of plot, character, and music.
Wright also gives us more of a sense of class differences than we usually see in Austen adaptations. The dress and comportment of the servants in the various households speak volumes. And the difference between the gowns worn by the Bennett girls and the sisters of Darcy and Bingley remind us that there you can be “upstairs” but quite a ways down from those who live at an even higher “upstairs.”
Those who were concerned that Kiera Knightly’s modern athleticism and overpowering teeth and jaw would make her a bad fit as Elizabeth will find they must confront their own prejudices, as she gives a lovely performance, an Elizabeth whose “fine eyes” show us the merry spirit that may get her into trouble but that also makes her irresistible to Darcy and to us. She and MacFadyen give us characters who may be proud and prejudiced but who are also alert, open, always observing and thinking.
Parents should know that, as in the book, the story involves a 16-year-old girl who runs away with an officer, bringing great shame to her family.
Families who see this movie should talk about what it was about Elizabeth and Darcy that at first made them so quick to judge each other and then overcome those prejudices. Why was Elizabeth so much better able to understand the motives and consequences of her family than her parents and sisters were? What is the best way for parents to teach values to their children? Who in this story is judged by his or her family, and when is that accurate? Families should talk about how it can seem like a compliment and an indicator of friendship to share uncomplimentary confidences about a third party, but it is more likely to be an indicator of poor judgment and possible manipulation.
Families may also wish to explore some of the rich array of scholarly essays on every aspect of this novel, from Marxist to proto-feminist to discussions of Austen’s descriptions of the natural world as metaphor for what is going on with her characters. Websites like this one provide some idea of the range of topics and perspectives that have been engaged by Austen’s work.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the book, as well as the many other outstanding adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, including the justly-lauded miniseries with Colin Firth and the MGM version with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and a screenplay by Aldous Huxley, Gwyneth Paltrow’s version of Emma and Sense and Sensibility, with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Emma Thompson, who also stars, along with Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, and Alan Rickman, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park. Films inspired by Austen’s novels include Clueless (Emma), Bridget Jones’s Diary (note that not only is the leading man named Darcy, he is played by the miniseries’ Darcy, Colin Firth), and Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood adaptation by Bend it Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha.