Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice

UK, 2005. Rated PG. 127 minutes.

Cast: Kiera Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Judi Dench, Jena Malone, Simon Woods, Rupert Friend, Kelly Reilly, Carey Mulligan, Talulah Riley, Penelope Wilton, Peter Wight, Claudie Blakley, Tamzin Merchant
Writer: Deborah Moggach, based on the novel by Jane Austen
Original Music: Dario Marianelli
Cinematography: Roman Osin
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
Joe Wright


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

I 'll make no apologies for it: I regard the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth 1995 BBC/A&E television miniseries as the definitive screen adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, and I see no reason for a new one. As far as I can tell, neither did anyone involved in this remake.

Apart from personal agendas, of course. Kiera Knightley wants to prove she can act; no-name director Joe Wright wants to advance his career; and the producers want to make a buck by using a star-studded cast to lure the many lovers of the Jane Austen classic to the movie theater. Even if it means making wrongheaded casting choices.

Most people know the story. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Donald Sutherland and Secret & Lies' Brenda Blethyn) and their throng of daughters cling tenuously to the bottom rung of the upper classes, with the daughters all desperately needing to marry well to assure their futures. The eldest, Jane (Rosamund Pike from Die Another Day), and visiting rich boy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) take a fancy to each other. However, Bingley's friend, the standoffish and even more rich Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen from Enigma) dissuades Bingley from the match and in the process insults the quick-witted heroine Elizabeth (Knightley), the next-eldest daughter. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth continue to butt heads while Elizabeth fends off the unwanted attentions of her preacher cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander from Gosford Park) and takes a fancy to dashing-but-suspect Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend from The Libertine). Meanwhile, the three youngest members of the Bennet brood (including Jena Malone from Donnie Darko and Life as a House) are doing all they can to land the family in scandal. And this convoluted summary covers only the first half of the tale.

Matthew MacFadyen and Kiera Knightley
Matthew MacFadyen and Kiera Knightley cut the rug in Pride & Prejudice.

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are destined to be together, of course, but they must first overcome their own…drum roll please…pride and prejudices. Yes, the novel contains razor-sharp social observations, commenting for example on the limited options available to women in the early 1800s, but without its nuanced characters and Austen's brilliant wordplay, it would remain a rather soap-operatic romance. The greatness of the 1995 miniseries lies partly in its five-hours-plus running time, which enabled the character development to breathe and Austen's original words to flourish. This CliffsNotes version of Pride and Prejudice clocks in at only two hours, so there's no time for such inessential frivolity. Introduce the next character! On to the next plot point! Move along!

This film is way too rushed and chaotic to be emotionally moving. Someone needed to cut and consolidate a few characters, or add to the running time. Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility is about a hundred pages shorter than Pride and Prejudice, yet Ang Lee's 1995 film was fifteen minutes longer than this movie. With little time to devote to subtle character development, this filmic version places more emphasis on Price and Prejudice being a feminist Cinderella story, even though a feminist Cinderella story is a bit of a contradiction in terms when the nuances and subtext of Austen's story are so glossed over.

Then there's the problem of Kiera Knightley. She's been getting raves for her performance in this film. She has star quality, that's true. She sure can do “feisty.” “Spunky,” too. However, scenes requiring more shading and gravitas find her lacking. She utters Austen's words with the correct facial expression and in the correct tone of voice, but she doesn't really convince you that she knows what she's saying. And she's hopelessly contemporary. Not Demi Moore or Heather Graham hopelessly contemporary (she is, after all, British), but hopelessly contemporary nonetheless. Her looks do her no favors here. She's beautiful, but she's way too angular and skinny for the time period. No amount of bad hair on the male actors (and there is a lot) can restore the authenticity lost by casting Knightley in the lead role. MacFadyen, on the other hand, acts well and is completely authentic. He is also completely unappealing. There's just no way to top the aloof charisma of Colin Firth.

There are a few ways in which this film surpasses the 1995 miniseries. The miniseries was strictly a put-the-camera-on-a-tripod-and-shoot affair, whereas Wright likes to echo romantic-era paintings with his compositions and engages in a few colorful flourishes, like when Elizabeth accepts a dance with Mr. Darcy, and the roomful of other dancers disappears as they move together. Then there's Tom Hollander's wormy Mr. Collins, a work of brilliance. David Bamber was just fine in the 1995 miniseries, but Hollander is inspired. Rosamund Pike is also impressive in her limited scenes, all the more so when you compare this performance to her 007 ice queen Miranda Frost. (I found myself wishing Pike had played Elizabeth.) Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn are also very fine, but the shame of it is that none of these supporting actors get the screen time they deserve.

Thanks to the supporting cast and the strength of the original material, Pride & Prejudice is a mildly enjoyable entertainment, particularly for fans of the novel (who won't have to struggle to follow the plot). Though there was no reason to make this film, that might be reason enough to see it.

Review © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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