Movie review: 'Pride & Prejudice'

Social IssuesDiscriminationEntertainmentDVDs and MoviesMoviesKeira KnightleyTelevision

3½ stars (out of four)

Austen, Shmausten. Do we really need another "Pride & Prejudice," one more dance of misperception performed by Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom the world knows always as Darcy and never as Fitzwilliam, and Lizzie Bennet, whom Jane Austen once called "as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print"?

Each new adaptation of Austen's three-volume novel, titled "First Impressions" in its original manuscript draft, carries with it this stern question of need. In Chicago, the prejudice and the pride won't quit. Austen's novel is the current "One Book, One Chicago" selection, and a stage version continues through Nov. 20 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

And while it may be a decade old, the pristine, well-manicured, beautifully acted six-hour BBC-TV miniseries adaptation boasts a DVD-clutching fan base of ardent ferocity.

It's a crowded field, but the happy answer to that question of need is: Yes. This latest "Pride & Prejudice" does feel necessary. It's an exuberant film adaptation of real personality—lively, coltish, imaginatively conceived for a fluid camera.

Director Joe Wright, whose resume consists mostly of British TV, has fashioned a version with a freer, less stuffy air than it has received before, more Romantic than Classical in impulse. Austen's novel straddles those realms to begin with; Wright and his collaborators have simply tipped it in one direction. The result is a costume picture that doesn't feel like one. Unlike so many respectability-plus literary adaptations—Roman Polanski's recent and surprisingly conventional "Oliver Twist" comes to mind—this one delivers a well-loved story without losing sight of the medium by which it is being told.

It's clear director Wright had a notion or two regarding that vague concept, "atmosphere." The moment he and cinematographer Roman Osin whisk us into the first of Austen's many balls and social gatherings we know we are not watching the BBC. When Lizzie, played by Keira Knightley, first meets the imperious Darcy, played by Matthew Macfadyen, sparks fly in the codified Austen manner. But the whole party, from musicians to dancers to Bennets, teems with life. Wright keeps his frames crowded with jostling, ruddy faces. Later, when Lizzie and her sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) share romantic secrets under their bed covers, the visual intimacy is striking.

While this "Pride & Prejudice" bustles along to a crisp but not frantic rhythm, thanks to editor Paul Tothill, the real payoff comes in the complex long takes and gliding camerawork. When the camera scurries after this or that domestic crisis in the Bennet home, or the guests at a manor bash thrown by Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), Darcy's sweet-natured comrade, the effect is pleasurably intoxicating. At one point, Wright's camera snakes its way along the outside of the Bennet home, eavesdropping on one conversation after another. The effect isn't showy—it took some doing, but it comes off without any conscious dazzle.

The boisterousness of these Bennets take some getting used to. The Bennet girls, all looking for love in the right and the wrong places, come off as very contemporary here. The socioeconomic level of the family, headed by Donald Sutherland's Mr. Bennet (working in one key, with a wobbly dialect) and Brenda Blethyn (working in quite another, as if auditioning for a music hall revue), has been brought down a peg or two, making their straits easier to perceive. There's a lot of barnyard mud and cackling geese in this version, heightening—for a dumber age, I suppose—Austen's issues of subtle class warfare.

Memories of Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier (from the 1940 film) or Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (from the 1995 miniseries) won't suffer by comparison. Yet even performances that get off to an indistinct start, such as Sutherland's, deepen and mellow as the story progresses. Sutherland and Knightley share a terrific scene, the one in which Lizzie must gain consent to marry Darcy from her doting father. It's surefire material, full of tears and laughter, and will no doubt generate the same in the audience. But Sutherland comes alive in this exchange in a way he hasn't for years.

Knightley, she of the swan's neck and the period-perfect lantern jaw—both of which the camera likes very much—wasn't yet 20 when she made this picture. A few years younger than Jennifer Ehle was when she made the British miniseries version, on screen Knightley seems to be of another generation entirely. But what Knightley and Macfadyen lack in seasoning, they make up for in charisma. They're good young actors. This Darcy may not suggest infinite gradations of the human being beneath the hauteur, but there's real fervency and heat to Macfadyen's later, emotionally unclenched scenes. And Knightley, who overworks that dazzling smile a bit in the early going, is blessed with a sharp ear for Austen's wit, teased out nicely by screenwriter Deborah Moggach.

Even the music's good: Dario Marianelli's delicate light-classical score holds off on the bombast until late in the game, when we see Darcy storming across the open fields toward Lizzie. It's his Heathcliff moment, more in the spirit of the Brontes than of Austen. And a the end, director Wright wraps the whole thing up with a fairy-tale coda more Shakespearean than Austen-tine. Yet it all works.

On the way to that rapturous ending, Mr. Collins, Lizzie's pathetic would-be suitor, tells Mr. Bennet he likes to affect "as unstudied an air as possible." This disarming "Pride & Prejudice" has taken Collins' advice to heart.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'Pride & Prejudice'

Directed by Joe Wright; screenplay by Deborah Moggach, based on the novel by Jane Austen; cinematography by Roman Osin; production design by Sarah Greenwood; music by Dario Marianelli; edited by Paul Tothill; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:07. MPAA rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements)

Elizabeth Bennet - Keira Knightley

Mr. Darcy - Matthew Macfadyen

Mrs. Bennet - Brenda Blethyn

Mr. Bennet - Donald Sutherland

Jane Bennet - Rosamund Pike

Lady Catherine De Bourg - Judi Dench

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Social IssuesDiscriminationEntertainmentDVDs and MoviesMoviesKeira KnightleyTelevision
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