Jane Austen’s 1813 novel has almost been anointed as the “mother of all romantic comedies.” Certainly, its plot, in which the two protagonists disguise growing affection behind barbed language and outward contempt for each other, is now a well-trod path and was so even in Austen’s day. Lizzie (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) are very much spiritual descendents of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
It also has to be one of the most adapted novels in cinema history, with eight film versions, including this one, and three television adaptations. Joe Wright’s 2005 film manages to do a masterful job of compressing the novel’s plot into a reasonable two-hour running time. The movie manages to do justice to the film’s characters, Austen’s language and major themes within the confines of a feature length film.
The Bennets are a middle-class family in rural Georgian England. Their mother, known only as Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn), is focused on one goal, getting her five daughters married to suitable husbands. Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) is more committed to staying out of his wife’s way and doting on his two eldest daughters, Jane (Rosamund Pike) and Elizabeth, who everyone calls “Lizzie.” There is a certain urgency to Mrs. Bennet’s quest, because with only five daughters, Mr. Bennet has no male heirs, mean that his estate would pass to his pompous cousin, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) on his death, leaving her daughters with no roof over their heads.
The arrival of a wealthy young bachelor named Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) is seen as a great opportunity for Jane to marry well, and the family attends a local ball, where Lizzie encounters Bingley’s reserved, taciturn friend, Mr. Darcy. (It appears that all men in England at this time have the same first name, that being “mister.”) To say the least, sparks do not fly between Lizzie and Darcy at first, as he dismisses her as “tolerable.”
That sets in motion an elaborate plot, which is best seen than described, as we watch Lizzie and Mr. Darcy dance around their feelings for each other while other dramas play out around them. Lizzie has a brief flirtation with a handsome army officer, Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), who portrays Darcy as a vindictive cad and Darcy’s intervention in Jane and Bingley’s courtship seems to bear this out.
Subsequently, Lizzie rejects a marriage proposal from Mr. Collins, much to her mother’s horror and her father’s delight, but her best friend, Charlotte (Claudie Blakley) chooses the security of marriage to Collins over a lifetime of spinsterhood. Visiting the new couple, Lizzie encounters Darcy again, as well as his formidable aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg (Judi Dench), and Darcy reveals that he is, to Lizzie’s horror, in love with her.
When Lizzie’s flighty younger sister, Lydia (Jena Malone) runs off with Wickham, however, Darcy’s actions help preserve the Bennet family honor and begin to suggest to Lizzie that she has badly misjudged the man.
As the cast list would probably suggest, the acting in Pride and Prejudice is rock solid all around. As Lizzie, Kiera Knightley does occasionally strike a few notes that seem a little too modern, but nothing jarring enough to be fatal. She brings vibrant life to a young woman who is as much a mother to her four sisters as Mrs. Bennet, only Lizzie seems far more concerned with their happiness than their prospects for marriage. Matthew Macfadyen does a superb job with Darcy, slowly peeling back the layers of reserve and revealing the fundamentally decent man underneath.
Brenda Blethyn’s Mrs. Bennet manages to be meddling and anxious without become tiresome, while Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet is equal parts warm gentility and exasperation. The final scene between him and Lizzie ought to wring at least a sniffle out of even the stoniest hearts, except maybe Lady de Bourg, who’s so calcified by demands of society that she almost has no inner life of her own. Judi Dench makes her an imposing figure to be reckoned with.
The film’s art direction and costume design give Jane Austen’s world a solid, lived-in feeling. At no time does the look of the film suggest actors in costumes on a set, but rather gives it a reality that provides a solid foundation under the actor’s performances.
Pride and Prejudice is an almost flawless film, a textbook example of a literate, respectful adaptation of a classic work, at least until the very last scene. American audiences were treated to a different ending than the rest of the English-speaking world, an obviously sexier, more commercial ending that seems terribly out of place with the rest of the film. I doubt that British filmmakers would ever think to tack on such an unnecessary scene, so I can only assume that this was at the request of the film’s American distributor. Why the studio would think that audiences who have already sat through two hours of faithful Jane Austen would somehow react better to this new final scene, which doesn’t really change the story at all, is beyond me. Probably some focus group or test audience told the studio to do this, which only further convinces me that the people who make up test audiences and focus groups are all brain damaged.