Pride & Prejudice
Joe Wright's cinematic debut takes Austen's classic at a brisk pace, underpinned by a brace of outstanding performances
Sunday 18 September 2005 00.11 BST
t is a truth by Universal acknowledged that a British producer in possession of Hollywood finance must be in want of a period screenplay. So it's scarcely surprising that the British production company Working Title, having disappointed its American financiers Universal Studios with the contemporary comedy, Wimbledon, should turn to Jane Austen's perennially popular 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice.
Admittedly, Merchant-Ivory fell on their elegant faces with their foolish miscalculation Jane Austen in Manhattan, but generally Austen adaptations have gone down well, especially Pride and Prejudice. There was a chocolate-box MGM version in 1940 starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, both well into their 30s, as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet; a Broadway musical used to launch the reopened Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1991 featuring Patricia Routledge as Mrs Bennet; numerous broadcast adaptations (most famously, the Andrew Davis treatment featuring Colin Firth's Darcy); and Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood extravaganza, Bride and Prejudice
The first film for the cinema by Joe Wright, an established TV director, working from a script by novelist and TV playwright Deborah Moggach, this widescreen Pride & Prejudice is a brisk affair with a narrative drive that finds relatively little time for reflection. It plunges straight into the story of Mrs Bennet's justified obsession with marrying off her five daughters by having Mr Bennet reveal that he's already visited the wealthy, eligible young newcomer, Mr Bingley, before his wife has urged him.
Within minutes, we're at the unfashionable ball at the local assembly rooms where the boisterous proceedings are immediately silenced by the arrival of Bingley, his sister (he has only one here) and his best friend, the even richer bachelor, Mr Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). The latter's pride and arrogance immediately antagonise the spirited Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), second eldest Bennet daughter and the one, for obvious reasons, best liked by her sardonic, ironic father (Donald Sutherland).
It is Bennet's inability to produce a male heir that has exposed his family to possible future poverty as their relatively humble Hertfordshire estate is entailed so that a cousin, the Reverend Collins (Tom Hollander), will inherit it on Bennet's death. It is appropriate, therefore, that after endless intrigues, proposals made and rejected, social signals misunderstood, lives enhanced and depressed, and an elopement, the film version ends not with marriages but with Bennet's final resigned quip to Elizabeth after giving his blessing to her forthcoming union with Darcy. Having seen three daughters married off, he says: 'If any young men come for Marty or Kitty, send them in for I am quite at leisure', and the film fades to black.
There is, presumably, no way of making Mrs Bennet sympathetic and in Brenda Blethyn's uningratiating performance, she's the mother from Hertfordshire as the mother from hell and more grotesque than funny.
Oddly enough, the outstanding figures in the movie, and the best performances, are both male. Not Darcy or Bingley or Wickham, who are all on the callow side, but the pair at the opposite ends of the spectrum, the wise, witty, understanding Mr Bennet, whose best characteristics Elizabeth has inherited, and the odious Reverend Collins, a man as unctuous as Uriah Heep, though sad and self-deceiving rather than hypocritical. Hollander's performance is a comic study in embarrassment and there is a peculiarly painful moment when the diminutive Collins stands behind the tall, imposing Darcy at a ball, attempting to attract his attention as a prelude to a terrible rebuff.
The strength of McFadyen's Darcy is that he's not so obviously charismatic as to make Elizabeth's initial rejection implausible. The strength of Knightley's Elizabeth is the way we see her grow in self-knowledge and confidence, concluding in her celebrated showdown with Darcy's imperious aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, played by Judi Dench like Lady Bracknell without the jokes.
Knightley, with her small features and physical fragility, bears a strong resemblance to Winona Ryder as Jo in Little Women, though at one point she's placed on a promontory in the Peak District during her visit to Darcy's Derbyshire mansion, which makes her resemble a Bronte heroine.
The movie is well designed and its locations intelligently chosen. Most importantly, the various houses accurately reflect the social gradations of their owners: the red-brick and tile of Langbourne, where the Bennets live in rough comfort at the centre of a working farm where pigs, ducks and chickens cavort around the doorsteps; Collins's dark, repressive vicarage; Bingley's fine country house with its polished floors, footmen and neoclassical furniture; and the contrasted grandeur of Darcy's place in Derbyshire, light, tasteful, welcoming, and Lady Catherine's mansion in Kent, deliberately overwhelming in its heavy furnishing, murals and platoon of liveried servants. The production designer is Sarah Greenwood.