When this version of the well-loved Pride and Prejudice came out in 2005, there were Jane Austen fans who cried foul. Some were fans of the 1995 version and believe Colin Firth the perfect Mr. D’Arcy. Others complained that director Joe Wright had spoiled their “vision” of the novel, by setting the story in 1797 (not 1813 when it was published) and adding a controversial ending not in the book.
1797 was the year that Jane Austen wrote her first draft of a novel she originally called “First Impressions”. Years later, after the success of Sense and Sensibility, Jane dug it out of the drawer or the box or wherever she kept it, reworked the draft and First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice. It’s a story so loved, it’s been turned into four movies -- including a 1940 version starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson -- a Bollywood musical “Bride and Prejudice”, and five mini-series.
Keira Knightley, like Helena Bonham Carter before her, seems born for period pieces like “Pride and Prejudice”. Her Elizabeth is opinionated and stubborn but she loves her family dearly despite their flaws and defends them fiercely. Matthew Macfadyen plays D’Arcy with the right amount of arrogance and an underlying sensitivity; watch his expressive eyes, especially when he falls for Elizabeth. She may think that D’Arcy is the last man on earth she would marry but we know better. Just beneath their verbal sparring is a passionate love, if only both would give up their pride and their prejudices about each other.
Marriage was a serious business for women in those days. Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn), mother of five daughters and no sons, takes matchmaking (and her nerves) very seriously. As she reminds her easy-going husband (Donald Sutherland), his death will leave them destitute since females cannot inherit property. A home and protection are more important than love, Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte sharply reminds her when Elizabeth reacts with dismay at Charlotte’s engagement to a man she considers “ridiculous”.
Equally important are propriety and social standing. When the youngest Bennett girl runs off with a cad, it’s a cause for scandal because they are unmarried. Lydia’s actions tars her sisters by default: they are no longer marriage material, not with a floozy for a sister.
Everybody keeps their clothes on and their hands to themselves yet there’s an underlay of sexuality and sensuality in the film. Watch the rainy scene where Elizabeth rejects D’Arcy’s proposal, the way they eye each other as they dance alone in a fantasy-like sequence, Elizabeth’s awakening awareness of the male body as she looks at the nude statues in the Pemberly gallery then sees a marble bust of D’Arcy’s face. Bingley caresses the edge of Jane Bennett’s gown as the camera pans around the Netherfield ballroom, catching bits of conversation and more: Mr. Bennet comforting Mary after her disastrous musical entertainment, Mr. D’Arcy’s disdainful look at the chattering Mrs. Bennet making marriage plans for her daughters, the forlorn Mr. Collins holding a flower probably meant for Elizabeth who’s avoiding him.
The famous writer Agatha Christie called Pride and Prejudice her favourite mystery novel, the mystery being in who marries whom. The course of love never runs smooth, if it did, any romantic book or movie would be rather short! Bingley seems to adore Jane Bennet but he suddenly leaves Netherfield Park, breaking her heart. Mr. Collins, heir to the Bennett estate has marital designs on Elizabeth who’s charmed by a young soldier named Wickham with a sad story about his mistreatment by D’Arcy. And D’Arcy is attracted to Elizabeth but repulsed by her family connections. Besides, both he and Bingley are on the verge of engagement to others apparently, according to Caroline Bingley and the fearsome Lady Catherine de Bourg.
For period romance, the movie moves along at a brisk clip. The dialogue sparkles and the actors inhabit their characters fully. The cinematography is lush and the music a pleasant accompaniment, not an intrusion. For all involved in its making, this “Pride and Prejudice” is something to be proud of, and a pure enjoyment for the viewer.