Pride and Prejudice (2005)

When it’s on: Sunday, 1 February (11.05 pm)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

It’s difficult to even start this piece without using the classic words ‘It’s a truth universally acknowledged’ even though doing so has become such a cliché, and pops up in every other review of the film that I’ve read. Of course, Pride and Prejudice is about as institutional a novel as it’s possible to get; a number of years ago, the public vote on the BBC’s Big Read survey found it coming a close second to The Lord of the Rings as Britain’s best loved novel. Adapting it for the cinema must have been a daunting prospect, especially considering the BBC adaptation from 1995 covered all the bases and remains the most admired screen version. And yet, as a crowd pleaser it’s pretty much unimpeachable; providing first-time film director Joe Wright got it right, it couldn’t really fail. Fortunately he did, and it didn’t.

Wright made the wise choice of trying to put some distance between his version and the six-hour long television adaptation written by Andrew Davies. The wider canvas produced by the BBC allowed for a sumptuous and lavish production that focused heavily on the characters and gave them time to develop. The film, running little more than two hours, had to make its points more obliquely, so the emphasis is on the different social status of the Bennetts and Mr Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen). The former, modest rather than poor, live on a working farm, the camera picking out the muck of the yard and the free roaming animals, and there’s little wonder that Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is absolutely gobsmacked by the opulence of Darcy’s Pemberley estate.

Given the time limitations, writer Deborah Moggach had to pick and choose from Austen’s text; the rest is filled in with visuals. Roman Osin’s cinematography was overlooked by the Academy, but he rightly picked up accolades from the Chicago Film Critics and European Film Awards for some ravishing photography, not just those beautiful shots of the landscape and neoclassical architecture but the clever way the camera has of teasing out the characters of the five Bennett girls. It’s a real treat that never lapses into the obvious potential for US market pleasing chocolate box scenes of Georgian England. It feels like a lived in world. Additionally, there’s some lovely editing to convey the passing of time, Lizzie turning around on a rope swing as the farmyard before her moves from summer to autumn with each twist.

If it does lose something, then it’s simply the lack of space to cover everything that happens in the novel; my wife, an avowed fan of the book, lamented crucial scenes that had been excised entirely. Instead, there’s a tighter importance placed on the growing love between Lizzie and Darcy. Knightley might now appear to be the obvious choice for the former, but she was cast partly for being such a different person from Jennifer Ehle in the BBC version. The heaving bosoms and knowing smiles are gone, replaced with an altogether more fragile and less confident character. Best known beforehand for being in slighter dramas that didn’t demand much in terms of acting skills, Knightley is an emotional tour de force here, everything she’s feeling crossing her pretty, flawless face as she delivers some powerful, sometimes stinging witty barbs. Macfadyen was relatively little known at the time, outside his starring role in Spooks, and perhaps he isn’t quite right as Darcy, relatively fine at delivering the character’s aloof superiority but less sure when the veneer cracks. However, the surge of emotions during the film’s closing moments, as the two characters declare their true feelings for each other, is strong and comes across as very honest.

The pair are backed by a brilliant cast, Judi Dench bitchy and patrician as Lady Catherine de Bourg, Caroline Bingley played as a jealous, austere-featured shrew by Kelly Reilly. The other Bennett sisters are all capably played, with Jena Malone standing out with a flawless English accent as the silly, free spirited Lydia. The real standouts are Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as Mr and Mrs Bennett. The former takes on a traditionally unsympathetic character and adds heart with a slightly desperate and almost unhinged overtone to her efforts at marrying off her daughters. Sutherland, given the gift of a role as Lizzie’s father and seeing himself in her, is funny, warm and a candidate for the Atticus Finch Award as Screen Dad of the Year.

Pride and Prejudice: ****

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8 Replies to “Pride and Prejudice (2005)”

  1. I’ve never seen any version of this story as I’m afraid I avoid these kinds of films where possible. I also keep away from literature of this period to a large extent – generally, I find the style a bit of a slog. People have said I’m missing out yet it remains a sort of blind spot for me.

    1. Thanks Colin. I was in two minds about whether to cover it before Mrs Mike suggested that was the challenge of the site, to take me out of my comfort zone. Of course she’s a big fan. For my part, I read Jane Austen’s Emma for A-Level English Literature and for added research read Pride and Prejudice also. for me, I’m afraid they came across as the root of all that is Mills and Boon; comedies about manners and etiquette amongst the high society don’t really push any of my buttons. But still, it’s just a beautiful looking picture and very well acted. I think this was the moment Keira Knightley established herself fully, and the support from the likes of Sutherland and Blethyn is spot on.

      But you are right, an absolute slog to read through, with apologies to Austen fans for saying that. I far preferred Shakespeare (we did Richard II and Hamlet, both magnificent) and the war poems we covered in that class, as much of an obvious ‘bloke’ as that makes me.

      1. Mike, you’re a better man than I am – getting through two of the books and the film is impressive!
        It is good to move out of the comfort zone from time to time and expand the horizons a bit. Still, there are certain things I just know I’m not going to enjoy and I find that often ends up coloring the experience; I can’t be doing with that manners and etiquette stuff and I’m not sure I could get past that aspect.

      2. Etiquette indeed, the way characters have of bowing and curtseying to each other with every introduction looks simply exhausting.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. I’ve been thinking of seeing A Dangerous Method for some time now, and your piece gave me the excuse to do exactly that. I’ve left a comment over at your blog. Thanks again.

  2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the reviewer of a work that is in possession of a highly memorable quote, must be in want of a way to shoehorn it into their introduction or conclusion.

    I really need to see this again — I remember liking it, but I also watched it soon after seeing the ’95 version for the first time, and seem to remember spending most of the time making comparisons. It seemed pretty pointless to re-adapt just 10 years after such a definitive version, but I recall the film held its own.

    Completely agree about how great Sutherland is here. I’m not as apathetic towards Austen as your good self or Colin, nor am I a huge fan, but the bit where Mr Bennet finally directly speaks out (“Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins…”, etc) is possibly one of my favourite bits of anything.

    1. Thanks Bob. Mrs Mike is the big Austen fan in this house and wholly agrees with you that the TV adaptation is the definitive one; she argues that this is because it has the space to cram in all the characterisation and little nuances that are missed in a two hour film.

      As for me, I’d heartily agree about Mr Bennett’s words, lovely and understated acting from Sutherland and a great little moment.

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