Austen Power

A neat, fleet Pride and Prejudice. 

The poster for Pride & Prejudice (Focus Features) triggered my proud prejudice against sub-Masterpiece Theatre dreck. It reads: “Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the only person you can’t be without.” Well, yes. And no. It’s like selling Moby Dick with: “Sometimes you get the whale. And sometimes, the whale gets you.” Other ominous first impressions: That ampersand, for one thing. The casting of Keira Knightley—the skinny girl with the long neck who looks like Winona Ryder stretched out—as Elizabeth Bennet, and of the Canadian-born ex-hippie Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet.

But Jane Austen would surely approve of the lesson I’ve learned: that one can’t judge a filmmaker by the vulgarity of his distributor’s marketing, any more than one can judge a daughter solely by the vulgarity of her mother or a gentleman solely by his hauteur (or, for that matter, an actor solely by his auteur). So, let me propose my own tagline: “Sometimes the last movie on earth you expect to like is the one that seduces you utterly.”

This new Pride & Prejudice—damn that ampersand!—is marvelous. All right, the movie inevitably leaves out or brushes lightly over cherished characters and details, and obsessive fans of the 1995 BBC miniseries will quarrel with its youngish Elizabeth and subdued Darcy. (The BBC Darcy, Colin Firth, was so indelible that he played the part again, in Bridget Jones’s Diary.) But the attack of this adaptation—directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Deborah Moggach—is so different from its BBC or Hollywood predecessors that comparisons seem pointless.

Wright has said in interviews that he approached the novel as a piece of gritty English social realism—as Austen’s antidote to the Gothic romances of the day. That sounds akin to remaking a Marx Brothers movie minus the wordplay. But don’t worry, fans of swooning romance. It’s a question of emphasis. Here, you catch sight of a pig in the financially strapped Bennet family’s kitchen. The wooden floors echo and squeak. The clothes aren’t freshly pressed. This is a world in which the men and women don’t bathe every day—or week, even. (I’m inferring; it’s not that the characters wrinkle their noses at one another’s bodily aromas.) Wright and the film’s production designer, Sarah Greenwood, give us a rough, tactile England. Even the obscenely magnificent 16th- and 17th-century mansions have a stony clarity—the cold, hard arrogance of wealth.

This Pride & Prejudice is ever in motion. Wright and his cinematographer, Roman Osin, revel in their lengthy and lovingly choreographed tracking shots: the ball in which the camera follows Elizabeth, then Darcy, then a servant, then Elizabeth again, all while weaving in and out of the dancers; and the Bennet home, with its screeching, giggling younger daughters (among them the American actress Jena Malone). Chaos at the Bennets’ is just at bay. Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet has sunk into his own world, while Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) is omnipresent, incessantly prodding her five daughters to marry wealthy men. Poor Elizabeth. With a golden-haired older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike), who’s the family beauty; with those irritating younger girls; with the ubiquitous farm animals; with an affectionate but recessive father; and with a clucking mother who regards her as nothing but husband bait, it’s a wonder she’s so self-possessed.

More than self-possessed: Knightley is the laughingest Lizzie Bennet I’ve seen. Smiling, cocking that long head on that long neck while working that long jaw like an impudent guppy, she seems always in the thrall of some private joke. Or maybe it’s Knightley in the thrall of this glorious repartee. Her pleasure in her lines is infectious, and her busy-ness works perfectly against the darkly handsome but socially paralyzed Darcy of Matthew MacFadyen. Most Darcys—Laurence Olivier above all—are haughty and sharp. MacFadyen’s delivery is slightly dulled, as if muffled by anxiety: His pride and vulnerability are close cousins. When he confesses his love—and sins—to Elizabeth in a heavy downpour, he is clearly overmatched by her fluent outrage.

I like MacFadyen’s soft Darcy, and love Sutherland’s soft Mr. Bennet. Often unshaven, with lank gray hair and a voice that’s barely audible, Sutherland captures this patriarch’s bitter withdrawal from the domestic field of battle—a withdrawal that might be insanely complete but for the love of his daughter Lizzie. In later scenes, his quiet presence shores her up; their conversations are a blessed balm. Every actor in the cast has a fresh take on these familiar roles—although Simon Woods’ Bingley seems slightly simpleminded, and Rupert Friend’s Wickham bears a disconcerting resemblance to Orlando Bloom. The diminutive Tom Hollander * plays the staid Mr. Collins with such tender sincerity that he acquires an unexpected stature. Intellectually inflexible, he’s a wildly inappropriate match for Elizabeth, but her too-amused rejection of him actually tugs the heart.

The great demon of this Pride & Prejudice isn’t Darcy but his aunt, the Lady Catherine de Bourg, the embodiment of all that is proud and prejudicial and, not incidentally, inhuman. Judi Dench demonstrates the power of the character—and her power as an actress—by doing as little as possible, frighteningly well. The rigidity; the high, lacquered hair-helmet; the blank but steady gaze at the shabbiness of the Bennet house: She is the perfect gorgon. Her Lady Catherine is not to the manor born—she bears the manor. Her very existence makes Jane Austen indispensable—and this Pride & Prejudice (ampersand and all) a joy to behold.

Correction, Nov. 11, 2005: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the actor who played Mr. Collins. It was Tom Hollander, not Tom Holland. (Return to the corrected sentence.)