Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has not been theatrically filmed since the superior 1940 Garson and Olivier vehicle, whose Huxley-Murfin screenplay derived from Helen Jerome’s play. Five times done for television, and recently Bollywoodized as Bride & Prejudice, the work is brought back at last, and overdue, to big-screen life pretty much as close as cinema can come to the third-person novel.
Deborah Moggach’s script is intelligent in not meddling with the authoress’ impeccable ear. Aside from minor Lydia (American Jena Malone), the English-Canadian cast’s accents are at first a tad difficult, but with just some two-centuries-old verbal speed-bumps smoothed out, and with a couple humorous all-talking-at-once Bennet women bits, the film flows. Additionally, much is said wordlessly, in pauses, in ellipses and unfinished sentences. In other cases, the viewer understands the opposite of what is actually verbalized, with a Lizzie (Keira Knightley) more private and isolated than in the (perhaps originally epistolary) novel and with Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), wealthy and handsome but on the surface a nasty piece of snobwork.
Judi Dench overdoes Darcy’s aunt Lady Catherine de Bourg’s self-centered meanness, and under young Joe Wright’s direction Mr. Bennet’s (Donald Sutherland) unhappiness in having married a foolish woman is toned down into amused irony; modern sensibilities will, however, judge more harshly his wife’s (Brenda Blethyn) obsession with marriage for their five daughters even in a place and time where options were limited and, the family lacking a young man, the small inheritance would legally fall to a male relation such as harmless dry-as-dust clergyman cousin Collins (Tom Hollander).
Beneath a sense of comedy of love and manners, lie the complexities of sorting out truth behind façades of polite conversation, convention, irony, and disparate accounts from varied sources. Collins disbelieves Lizzie’s “Can I speak plainer?” refusal of his proposal. She, in turn, hears Colonel Fitzwilliam’s (Cornelius Booth) accurate yet incomplete summary and also Lt. Wickham’s (Rupert Friend) disparaging account of Darcy, who is vulnerable from his stiffness to his habitual shy pride. Man-hungry Lydia is blinded by a dashing uniform, Charlotte Lucas’ (Claudie Blakley) case is not what it seems, and Mr. Bennet does not see the truth hidden in his favorite child’s mistaken “always hated him” impression, itself balanced by the Pemberley housekeeper’s adoring assessment.
More incidentally than not set during the Napoleonic struggles, Austen’s story was originally titled First Impressions. In multi-location shooting, the film develops the theme of how misguided initial reactions may be -- or how correct, as in Bingley’s (Simon Woods) immediate attraction to Lizzie’s closest sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike). A feeling of natural light underscores the revelation of reality and the readjustment of the title’s alliterative qualities. Muted exteriors drip mist, the camera peers through windows, and cottages and stately homes are gathering places occasionally illuminated by bursts of British sunshine but normally by fire- or candlelight.
Village-hall dances are affairs to make or renew acquaintances, exchange news and gossip, flirt, separate and come together in interrupted conversation on packed dance floors under high ceilings. Darcy’s palatial Derbyshire residence is beautiful and spacious in cultured museum taste; the Bennets’ Longbourn is crowded with layers of female clothing, its dining table covered with the paraphernalia of food, the library cozy with massed books and plants.
Not pandering or popularizing aside from a dreadful closing scene, on its way to the rewards and union of virtue, love and, why not, wealth, this new Pride & Prejudice (the ampersand is not Austen’s) is faithful to the spirit of its observer-recorder of two hundred years ago. With no violence, FX, sonic SFX or action, nary a naughty word, it may be lost on our younger generation, which is the loser for that; small compensation, but at least the young have Bridget Jones’s Diary.
(Released by Focus Features and rated "PG" for mild thematic elements. Opens November 11th in New York City and Los Angeles.)