When it’s on: Sunday, 1 February (11.05 pm)
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: ****