Though often dismissed as chick flicks with manners, middlebrow literary costume dramas of the Merchant Ivory school brought a slate of virtues to the cinematic landscape. At a time when action flicks were taking over, they celebrated the pleasures of rounded storytelling, and even their proverbial theme — the tug-of-war between love and money — was tougher than it looked: At their best (A Room With a View, Persuasion), these films anatomized romance, that dance of the spiritual and the worldly, as few other movies have. Nevertheless, the genre, in recent years, has faded, a casualty of shifting tastes, and that makes it reasonable to ask: What could the dozenth adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, with lush photography and Keira Knightley, bring to the party?
Quite a bit, it turns out, and it all starts with the party. In the English countryside, Elizabeth Bennet (Knightley), sharp and headstrong, with a perky dimple of skepticism, is invited, along with her four giggly, eager-to-be-married sisters, to a ball at Netherfield Park, a magnificent stone mansion that sprawls like a castle. We’ve all seen a jillion of these scenes: the heaving bosoms, the group dances so stylized they’re like an 18th-century version of speed dating, the glimmers of scandal whenever someone gets too…forward. All of that is here, yet the director, Joe Wright, a veteran of British television, makes the past feel as swirling and alive as the present.
As the eldest Bennet sister, the lovely but shy Jane (Rosamund Pike), makes a play for Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), who is throwing the party, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie, sizes up a tall, handsome, and forbiddingly curt figure named Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), while the younger Bennet siblings make goo-goo eyes at any man in uniform. The women prowl from room to room, seeking adventure around every corner, and the camera, in glorious long takes, follows them. Stately on the surface, the ball unfolds with the crowded eroticized mischief we associate with a great modern soiree. It sets the tone for a movie in which the search for love all but pulses with the excitement of uncertainty.
Those eager to see how Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy stacks up against Colin Firth’s can seek out a DVD of the 1995 BBC version, but I can tell you that Macfadyen is sensational, with a noble profile just this side of surly and a plummy voice of such sullen quietude that you see how Lizzie might take it as dismissive. The plot, of course, gives our heroine ample reason to mistake Darcy for a cad (he scotches Bingley’s romance with her sister), yet Macfadyen plays Darcy’s ”pride” as a cover for his buried ambivalence about love: never bitten, but still shy. Darcy and Lizzie’s war of misunderstanding, which keeps dousing their budding affection, is never predictable or coy, and that’s because Keira Knightley, in a witty, vibrant, altogether superb performance, plays Lizzie’s sparky, questing nature as a matter of the deepest personal sacrifice. She’s not a feminist but a confused, ardent girl charting her destiny without a map. The acting in Pride & Prejudice tingles with nuance and presence. Brenda Blethyn makes Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters faintly hysterical but never just funny, Donald Sutherland, as the craggy Mr. Bennet, glows with sadness and joy, and rascally Jena Malone plays Lydia as England’s original teenybopper. It’s a heady pleasure to share their company.
2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Keira Knightley); Best Art Direction; Best Costumes; Best Original Score (Dario Marianelli)