Keira Knightley, who is all of twenty but has the grace and gravitas of someone a good decade older, probably considers herself the luckiest lass in all the world at present. Just as Pride & Prejudice begins filling the cineplex with dewy, hopeless romantics who can’t get enough of Jane Austen, her other fall film, Domino, shamefully skulks to the video store shelves, never to be heard from again. How fortunate for her, because had the movies been released in opposite order, Knightley would have ended 2005 not so much adored as pitied — as an up-and-comer who blew it before she knew it. So dreadful was Tony Scott’s agitated, enervating biopic of bounty hunter Domino Harvey, it was tempting to damn and dismiss all associated with it; the thing stinks, and its odor lingers on all involved, no matter how many times they wash their clothes. But Knightley will emerge from it relatively unscathed, as she has done from so many other films in which she’s burned brighter than the material, including her other dark dud this year, The Jacket. So, pride, absolutely; prejudice, not so much, lucky gal.
Knightley, though, provides but one reason to recommend the 432nd adaptation of Austen’s novel, including the famous 1940 production starring Laurence Olivier as the smug Mr. Darcy and Greer Garson as the willful Elizabeth Bennet; the beloved 1995 made-for-BBC movie with Colin Firth as Darcy, the source of every gag found in Bridget Jones’s Diary; and last year’s glitzy Bollywood production directed by Gurinder Chadha, in whose Bend It Like Beckham Knightley scored her first goal. (And surely, there must have been a Pride & Prejudice on Ice, starring Tai Babalonia as Lizzie, that’s missing from the prodigious list of adaptations.)
If ever there was a bit of material not in need of a good dusting, it’s this novel. No more mystery can be wrung from its machinations, after all. At this late date, Pride & Prejudice is in the unique position of being old without growing stale; one almost expects to look at the writing credits and see as its source material the heart-shaped, googly-eyed screenplays of Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones movies, and Love, Actually), whose movies are financed by Working Title Films — the same British company responsible for Pride, in fact. Austen provided Curtis with the template he then rendered into formula; one could just as easily imagine Hugh Grant in the role of Darcy, his shaggy, remote exterior concealing a marshmallow beneath.
Director Joe Wright, a maker of BBC movies that look period without belonging too much to the past, and writer Deborah Moggach have made the material feel just as modern as Clueless, the 1996 version of Emma set in Beverly Hills, without rendering it anachronistic. Rather than linger over the scenes like some painter admiring his handiwork, Wright directs the camera to keep moving; it’s as restless as the characters, aching to find that wondrous thing hidden in plain sight. And this Pride & Prejudice is beautiful but also delightfully grimy, as though someone has poured a garden’s worth of dirt all over the prop department and cast, including Rosamund Pike as Jane, the older sister in love with the awkward and wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). There’s something more real about this version, more human, more lived-in; though their words may have been penned two hundred years ago, when Austen was a young woman writing in saloons about her idealized self, this cast and crew nudge the material into the now.
What could have been dreary and old-fashioned, this potential montage of bodices and balls sure to glaze the eyes of the moviegoer, has the zing and sting of the au courant — and surely much of that has to do with Knightley as Lizzie, who is more beautiful than Austen imagined, which all the more amplifies the heroine’s spark, scorn, and wit. Why would such a beauty settle for the ghastly Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), the ecclesiastic who promises Lizzie and her grotesquely social-climbing mother (Brenda Blethyn) a lifetime of middling wealth, when she can snare Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), whom she claims to loathe but so clearly loves? Knightley’s Lizzie is all the more threatening because of her looks. A bright sun as this clearly doesn’t live in the shadows, as Lizzie has been wont to do in other adaptations.
And its warmth is evident in the casting of MacFadyen, whose dour demeanor allows for the occasional glint of repressed ardor, and Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet, Lizzie’s poor, put-upon father, who wants for his five daughters the happiness Blethyn’s character insists they sacrifice for the promise of everlasting wealth. Wright’s Pride is marvelous and compelling, one of those movies sure to brag of critics’ quotes blazed across posters promising “one for the ages.” Of all the adaptations, perhaps, it’s the one possessing the biggest heart, which finally bursts toward film’s end, as Darcy and Lizzie march toward each other during the inevitable climax that, amazingly enough, still plays fresh and tender and passionate as a first kiss.