DOES the thought of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet give you pause? Jane Austen's smartest, toughest and most independent-minded heroine was last portrayed by Jennifer Ehle in the excellent 1995 BBC miniseries, the one that established Colin Firth as the Mr. Darcy to end all Mr. Darcys. There, Lizzie's intelligence was made to carefully hack its way through pin curls and silly Regency frippery like a machete-wielding Amazon explorer. But in Joe Wright's exhilarating new version, the first feature film adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice" in 65 years, Lizzie has been liberated from period fashion victim-hood, scruffed up a little, and let loose on the wily, windy moors. So what if the style seems a touch anachronistic -- it's close enough to the spirit and the letter of the novel, and makes up for the differences in energy and fun.
In wash-and-dry hair and sacklike brown dresses that highlight clavicles you could slice cake with, Knightley's beauty has been gamely toned down to bring Lizzie to life as a sharp, playful colt with a well-developed sense of the absurd. It would be tempting to call her a modern heroine if modern heroines weren't such vapid saps. Knightley does much better than that: She animates Lizzie's laserlike wit without dampening the righteous frustration from which it springs. Like all great satirists, Austen knew to couch her barbs in humor, and Knightley's vibrant performance eloquently expresses the ignominious, but often funny, position Lizzie and her four sisters have been placed in by fate, gender and circumstance.
Lizzie is the second of five sisters, all of them unmarried, a fact that causes her honking goose of a mother (wonderfully played by Brenda Blethyn in various states of giddy agitation and distress) no end of worry. The daughters of a minor member of the aristocracy whose house and fortune will go to a loathsome, toadying cousin when Mr. Bennet dies, the girls are at the mercy of whoever chooses to marry them. But still they chafe at the idea of marrying for anything but love, and the story catches them at the precise moment when their futures are starting to come down to a reckless gamble. How their lives turn out will depend on a careful calibration of decorum, parental engineering and luck. It's an impossible situation for a smart, sensitive person to find herself in, and Lizzie feels it acutely -- especially after the sweet but suggestible Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), who has fallen in love with her sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), allows himself to be led away by the imperious Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen).
The story has been compressed for time, as well as considerably sped up and aired out, thanks to Wright's dynamic direction and Roman Osin's voracious and kinetic photography. Having wonderfully captured the Bennets' simple life in the country, and the excitement at the Bingleys' arrival, the camera begins constantly placing Lizzie on the edge of some dramatic cliff, or in some riotous storm or on some windswept hill or another, dramatizing the tempestuous extremes of her emotions in pure, Romantic style.
Hit with the triple blow of seeing her beloved sister jilted by Mr. Bingley, her best friend Charlotte (Claudie Blakley) resignedly married to the dread cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) -- whose alarming earlier breakfast proposal to Lizzie seemed even to make the ham on the table cringe and blush -- and the sudden departure of the handsome officer Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), Lizzie is tipped into melancholy. It's in this frame of mind she finds herself when, while visiting Charlotte, she once again meets Mr. Darcy, who stuns her with a marriage proposal that's part ardent declaration of love, part ad hominem attack on her family. (An even "greater man" than Mr. Bingley -- his income is double -- Mr. Darcy considers the Bennet girls beneath him and his friend.) Lizzie rejects him, only to come to understand him and discover the truth about Mr. Wickham after it's too late. When by chance she tours Mr. Darcy's awe-inspiring estate Pemberley Hall with her aunt and uncle, she feels the full effect of her refusal. Even the down-to-earth Lizzie can't help but feel the sting of a near-miss with a great fortune.
Macfadyen's Mr. Darcy broods and stews more fiercely than ever and is occasionally reduced to muteness as he struggles with his love for Lizzie, which at first he tries to ignore for the sake of his rank. Notably missing from Deborah Moggach's polished adaptation is the wet shirt scene that launched a thousand Bridget Jones rhapsodies, but Macfadyen's Mr. Darcy has a generally lugubrious air, not to mention his propensity for getting caught in the rain. He's sexy in a forlorn, wild-haired way, more Byronic hero than peer gone wild, and his and Knightley's near-kisses are more heavily charged than all the nudity-for-art's-sake in the world.
In one notable deviation from the novel, Mr. Bennet's (Donald Sutherland) somewhat contemptible neglect of his daughters' situation has been softened here into a sort of benign distraction, which undercuts the tragedy of Lizzie's younger sister Lydia's (Jena Malone) birdbrained elopement with the rapacious Mr. Wickham. But his doting relationship with Lizzie is a pure pleasure to watch. The film's single false note comes in a post-wedding scene on a balcony at Pemberley Hall that's unfortunately reminiscent of "Sixteen Candles." By then, however, the movie has thoroughly insinuated itself. With outstanding performances, including a turn by Judi Dench as the evil Lady Catherine de Bourg, "Pride & Prejudice" is a joy from start to finish. If this one doesn't inspire a rush on bookstores, nothing will.
'Pride & Prejudice'
MPAA rating: PG for some mild thematic elements
Times guidelines: Suitable for all audiences
A Focus Features release. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Deborah Moggach. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster. Director of photography Roman Osin. Editor Paul Tothill. Production design Sarah Greenwood. Costume design Jacqueline Durran. Music by Dario Marianelli. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. In general release.