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Pride & Prejudice

It's not as if Jane Austen's quintessential love story had not been previously adapted for the screen. Although Hollywood's only major adaptation starred Laurence Olivier in 1940, a decade rarely passed without a BBC television production of the classic 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice, culminating in the impeccable, near-definitive 1995 miniseries that introduced Colin Firth as a U.K. heartthrob. No less, the blockbuster Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) borrowed heavily from Austen's tale, as did the crossover "Bollywood" hit Bride and Prejudice (2004). Without wanting for interpretations, one might reasonably ask director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach what they hoped to accomplish with yet another; on evidence of the resulting Pride & Prejudice (2005), one might reasonably surmise that they found Austen's story a dreadful bore and that it was in dire need of, as the British say, "sexing up." Keira Knightly stars as Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters, each of whom must marry above their means to rescue the family from a bleak future, as their raggedy estate will eventually pass into the hands of the closest male heir, an unfamiliar cousin. When a well-appointed bachelor lets a nearby manor, he takes an immediate fancy to the eldest daughter, the lovely Jane (Rosamund Pike), but the brusque manners and haughty air of his closest friend, Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), run afoul of none moreso than Elizabeth. Brashly independent for her time, and cynical despite her liberal ideals about marriage and happiness, Lizzie is not shy about Darcy's repellence, and as fate draws them together time and again, the more Lizzie learns about the socially graceless Darcy, her dislike for him grows into passionate revulsion. But just as Darcy's pride in his social rank prejudices him against the Bennet's comparatively low society, so does Lizzie's superficial knowledge prejudice her against Darcy, and it takes considerably longer for her pride to allow for a reverse in feelings.

There are some marvelous facets to Wright's take on this well-worn story, foremost what remains of Austen's careful wit, nuanced characters, and sharp social criticism. Dario Marianelli's delicate, evocative score is superb, and many of the performances are fine, despite some strange casting. Wright appears to be an able director, if one only judges from the masterfully choreographed tracking shots during the ball at Netherfield. But his distrust of Austen's source material — and his modernizing embellishments to it — is startling and unpleasant. In Austen's world of 19th century England, her heroines are constantly conflicted between their inner desires and outer appearances, and Elizabeth is no different, facing not only the difficulty of holding out for true love despite grave financial circumstances that demand compromise, but also the complicating improprieties of her bold nature, her dizzy mother, and her silly younger sisters. However, in Wright's vision, Knightley's Elizabeth possesses barely more reserve than her spastic siblings, more smart-aleck than smart; perhaps it is an artifact of Knightley's unsophisticated (sometimes incoherent) craft that Lizzie is chronically unable to conceal an emotion or deliver a sarcastic quip without a giveaway twinkle in her eye and puckering of her cheeks, but there is far too much sensibility and not near enough sense in her performance, a flaw that tears at the integrity of Austen's narrative.

Nonetheless, giggly Knightly alone is not to blame, as Wright nervously sensationalizes many key scenes with dramatic flourishes so obvious and clichéd that one becomes embarrassed for him. Key scenes are transplanted from their natural drawing-room habitats into ridiculously "romantic" or preposterously dramatic settings, such as flashing rainstorms or dewey meadows at daybreak, or (ugh) the precipice of a severe (but oh-so-scenic) cliff-side. Lizzie's and Darcy's early contentiousness is frequently augmented with conspicuously haunted and lustful glances, most notably following her vehement refusal of his proposal, at the very apex of her disdain for him. Indeed, Wright seems preoccupied with sex, adding a howler of a sequence during which Lizzie hungrily fixates on the naughty bits of nude sculptures. Such anachronisms are not only deeply silly, but they undermine the profound and enduring admiration-based love story with the superficial cinematic tricks of a perfume ad. The film's added/altered (and ad-libbed) dialogue fares no better, the worst of which is the pathetic final scene — allegedly added for American audiences — during which two newlyweds insipidly prattle about their happiness (assumedly, post-coital) outside in their nightclothes, spouting sweet nothings that would likely make Austen plunge the sharp tip of a fountain pen into each of her ear drums. Knightly is very poor (as evidence, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), and also oddly off-putting is Donald Sutherland, who is bizarrely charged with playing Mr. Bennet as some kind neo-Victorian hippie who has long forsaken the appearances of a gentleman. Brenda Blethyn, however, is perfectly suited for the histrionic Mrs. Bennet, and many of the minor players are excellent, notably the comely Pike as Jane and Tom Hollander as the smarmy Mr. Collins. Macfadyen is as spirited as a wet sock as Darcy, but his dreamy dullness will no doubt appeal to many 14-year-old girls, which may be the demographic best served by this dimwitted dumbing-down of Austen's classic. Also with Dame Judi Dench, Jena Malone, and Rupert Friend (who is not Orlando Bloom, despite appearances).

*          *          *

Universal presents Pride & Prejudice on DVD in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Director Joe Wright delivers a commentary track, during which some auditors may suspect that he actually hasn't read Austen's source-novel. Also included are the bland featurettes "A Bennet Family Portrait," "Jane Austen, Ahead of Her Time," "Behind the Scenes at the Ball," and "HBO First Look: Pride & Prejudice, A Classic in the Making," which simply rehashes pieces from the other featurettes. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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