Just mentioning this movie in our household is akin to an act of blasphemy. Indeed, after smuggling it inside, my brother Sam and I watched it with the volume turned down low whilst everyone else was asleep.
The reason is that among period drama fans the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries is Mecca. A masterpiece of casting, direction, and delivery, there’s really nothing I can say against it.
It’s a further testament to our familiarity with the story that my sixteen-year-old brother (brother, mind) was full of detailed, enthusiastic criticism. “That’s not Mr. Bennet,” he opined as a grouchy Donald Sutherland mumbled his lines. As a long, single shot captured the Netherfield Ball (Sam commented, appreciatively, on the camera-work): “Is that Mr. Bingley? No! Look at his hair!” The general lightness of the acting, and lack of restraint in comparison to the TV series, prompted: “They’re all too young!”
Sam was pretty much right, but despite the fact that this movie can’t decide if it’s a literary classic or a modern romcom (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma accomplished this successfully), it has enough fine elements to compel admiration. Keira Knightley surprised me, delivering a heroine who was equal parts boyish, spirited, and witty. Like the production in general, she has a much more youthful feel than Jennifer Ehle (whose performance Knightley loved, and was “terrified” of imitating). Knightley feels, in some ways, more believable, like an actual teenage girl. This Bennet family, in all its giggly chaos, is very authentic and genuine, though the two younger girls tend to meld into one another (when Lydia’s elopement finally comes, it’s rather boring.)
Embellishment is part of the fun, for since we already have an Official Version, this counts as more self-indulgent fan-fiction than anything. And as fan-fiction, it’s far from terrible. The cast create a group of amusing characters which nearly render the plot superfluous. Our protagonist apparently has no idea what she wants, preferring to wander the country reading books and raising hell (I’d have been satisfied if that’s all she had done). Mrs. Bennet seems to be the only one who remembers what the point is: finding husbands. This is a driving force in the story, but it doesn’t seem to have the weight as in the miniseries, happening as it does around the many adventures of Tomboy Bennet.
The settings feel disjointed, as if coming from different periods of history, from the Grecian elegance of Pemberley to the Nanny McPhee eccentricity of Longbourn to the Hall of the Rohirrim feel of Lucas Lodge to the gorgeous pastoral countryside. The costumes are all over the place. The instant I saw Keira Knightley in brown in the first few frames, I knew Something Anachronistic This Way Comes. Brown is the defining color in this film’s palette, unlike the predominating white and pastel shades in 1995.
This creative choice is the harbinger and symbol of a more ubiquitous decision: to abandon Jane Austen’s ivory tower. Austen’s characters are often described as living in a vacuum, apart from the harshness of the 1700s. Charlotte Bronte (who would have appreciated this movie) described Pride and Prejudice as “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but ... no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.” No mud, either. Like a Bronte novel, this adaptation incorporates both passion, foreboding lighting, and characters in pajamas, and also brings the grimy, gritty world outside Longbourn right up to the front door. (Let's not even talk about the pig in the kitchen scene - appalling.)
It’s the wrong decision. Jane Austen is tricky to do well. The first item on the agenda is that the film take place in Austenworld, a green, sunny country where every action is channeled through the fickle tides of fortune, society, and manners, and the utmost evil is a bruised social reputation. Austen was an adept satirist, and did not need the extravagantly obvious contrast of Dickens’s varied strata of characters to make her point about the pettiness of 18th Century high society.
However, playing laissez faire with Jane Austen isn’t enough to distance me (though there is definitely a certain coolness). While the ridiculous lack of period accuracy was off-putting, the deep sincerity of individual actor’s performances shone through. Rosamund Pike’s Jane was so graceful and wise that I found it hard to buy her instant attraction to Simon Woods’s bumblingly charming Bingley. The Bennets are believable as well-meaning but flawed parents—Brenda Blethyn is the first I’ve seen to ever make me sympathize(!) with Mrs. Bennet, and Donald Sutherland is superb in (what should have been) the last scene of the movie. Tom Hollander is a splendidly awkward Mr. Collins, achieving oblivious, self-righteous isolation without the simpering of David Bamber. Judi Dench was rather blandly villainous.
Matthew MacFadyen was disappointing, but to be fair, I found it quite impossible to separate Colin Firth from the role of Mr. Darcy—MacFadyen never stood a chance. In fact, I found the whole romance oddly dull. It lacks the slow burn power of the novel, and the blame is firmly placed on Lizzy’s shoulders for misjudging Mr. Darcy, who was always a pretty nice guy with a bundle of insecurities. His gradual change in character is barely touched upon, and this lack ruined any chance I had of connecting emotionally. And let's face it, the man didn't even have a lake scene.
The cinematography has several great moments, from the gloriously slow opening to the wide shots of Lizzy hiking bare, green vistas. It was a good choice to avoid much of the well-beloved dialogue (pretty much every time I heard a line I was comparing it unfavorably to the 1995 version), choosing the juiciest bits and inventing a great deal, sometimes entertaining, sometimes laughingly modern.
Whatever its flaws (such as the fact that, again, it’s mostly fan-fiction), the movie has its heart in the right place, and is adequately similar and dissimilar to the original to still surprise and amuse a hardened fan such as I. The emphasis on morality is firmly in place, and the overcoming of prejudice to see with clear eyes. Keira Knightley really cares, and it shows. The production's heartfelt earnestness did manage to slip underneath my guard. But only a bit.