Love and Marriage

Jane Austen style

PRIDE & PREJUDICE: Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Deborah Moggach, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster. Executive producer, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin. Cinematography, Roman Osin. Editor, Paul Tothill. Music, Dario Marianelli. Music supervisor, Nick Angel. Production design, Sara Greenwood. Costume design, Jacqueline Durran. Starring Keira Knightley, with Matthew MacFadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Tom Holland, Rosamund Pike. With Jena Malone, Judi Dench, Kelly Reilly, Rupert Friend, Simon Woods, Talulah Riley, Carey Mulligan, Claudie Blakley. StudioCanal. Focus Features, 2005. PG. 128 minutes.

Watching the delightful five-hour television miniseries of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as the warring twosome, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, I was sure I’d never see a better production. Adapted for the small screen by the master of such enterprises, British writer Andrew Davies, the 1955 TV production was flawless, energetic and satisfyingly complicated.

I was skeptical that the 2005 British version for the big screen could compare, but Austen’s material is so malleable (note Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bride and Prejudice) there’s no reason to quit working with it now. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach’s new screen version is playful, pleasing and crowded with people. The luminous beauty of Keira Knightly graces nearly every scene, and in Matthew Macfadyen’s credible interpretation, Darcy’s apparent arrogance masks his feelings and responsibilities. Seriously similar to one another in intellectual quickness and a sense of fairness, Lizzie and Darcy are mired in multiple misunderstandings. The pair remind me most of the battling lovers Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) in Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing.

Compounded by repeated false impressions, Lizzie and Mr. Darcy’s mistakes give the material a subtle kink that plays out in amusing ways. The bold Lizzie asks the newly met Mr. Darcy if he dances. “Not unless I have to,” he replies. Later, Lizzie overhears him say she’s not “handsome enough” to interest him in dancing, which hurts her feelings. Crouching under a table with her best friend, Charlotte (Claudie Blakley), Lizzie makes light of his remark, noting she would be more willing to overlook Darcy’s failings if he were more willing to overlook hers.

The film’s subtext is the condition of women in society, the economic realities facing a family of five daughters in particular. Lizzie is shocked when Charlotte marries a boring distant cousin of Mr. Bennett’s (Donald Sutherland). Reverend Mr. Collins, played to perfection by Tom Hollander, will inherit Bennett’s house when he dies. Supported by her father but horrifying her mother, Lizzie refuses to hear Mr. Collin’s proposal, even though she, her sisters and her mother cannot inherit the house and could be turned out. Poor Mrs. Bennett’s (Brenda Blethen) talks too much, suffering as she does from overwhelming anxiety about her girls’ future.

Despite such serious matters, the household is a happy one, as busy and silly as young girls can make it. In a generous performance, Sutherland calms the household with a loving, tenderness toward all. He’s too lenient by far with Lydia (the excellent Jena Malone), who at 15 is so certain of her charms she runs off with an undesirable man, threatening the other girls’ opportunities to marry well. Malone imbues the unthinking Lydia with characteristic self-absorbed behavior as familiar to parents today as it was to those of the late 18th century.

At a ball in the town, where the locals and the gentry come together, the gentle eldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) meets the new wealthy neighbor, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), a sweet lad who prefers the country to the stuffy, mannered city. Bingley is daft over Jane immediately, but his snooty sister, Caroline (Kelly Reilly), and his friend, Mr. Darcy, discourage him. Jane’s heart is broken, and Lizzie turns against Darcy with a passion.

Mixing local townspeople and landowners was an idea that found currency during the French Revolution, which scared upper-class England. The uppers decided as a class to better know “their” artisans, merchants and such folk. For the first time, respectable but not wealthy young women could marry up, which was Mrs. Bennett’s most heartfelt wish for her daughters.

Give yourself over to this excellent social comedy that has stayed timely since it was first published in 1813. Knightley invites you into Lizzie’s world, and this heroine of women the world over is persuasive. With lovely settings, costumes, details of daily living and crowded dance floors, Pride & Prejudice is a treat. Now playing at Cinema World and Cinemark. Highest recommendations.