Arguably the film of the year, this latest version of Pride and Prejudice won the heart of this reviewer. Beautifully shot, making the most of its stunning locations indoors and out, it cannot fail to please at a purely visual level. Scene follows after gorgeous scene: glowing sunrises and sunsets, candlelit interiors, the splendour of the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth standing alone on the windswept moorland, down to the misty dawn romance of Darcy and Elizabeth’s final acknowledgment of their love. It is not merely appealing to the eye, however; Austen herself would have approved of the way these actors bring her characters to life. Keira Knightley is marvellous as the feisty, headstrong Elizabeth who judges people too hastily and Matthew McFadyen’s Darcy has a touch of vulnerability which makes him a most attractive leading man. Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland excel as Mr and Mrs Bennet, trying to do the best for their daughters in a difficult situation. Rosamund Pike is passively lovely as Jane and Tom Hollander wonderfully comic as the dreadful social climber Mr Collins. My only criticism is that some of the minor characters, in particular Mr Wickham, have very little screen time. This is, however, inevitable in a two-hour adaptation of a long novel and does not detract from the enjoyment of this classic romance.
Adaptations of classic novels will always be loved and loathed in equal measure, perhaps Pride and Prejudice, with its many versions for screen and television, most of all. Difficult but necessary decisions about what can be cut or reduced have in the main been done thoughtfully. Minor characters and scenes which enrich the characterisation but do not advance the plot are omitted, while others, even Bingley and Jane, are consigned to relatively minor roles. More worrying is the relegation of Wickham, whose character is pivotal in revealing Elizabeth’s prejudice and Darcy’s pride, to two short scenes. Attention however will mainly be on the two leading characters. This Elizabeth is a delightful, hot-headed tomboy, while Darcy is a handsome, enigmatic hero whose growing relationship with Elizabeth fizzes with verbal sparring and sexual tension. Where, however, is the haughty pride that brings about his first, disastrous (and in this version, unintentionally hilarious) proposal? Why on earth was this done in the rain, at a time when getting drenched could easily lead to death, a fate which almost befalls Jane? Is this perhaps why they appeared to be trying to outdo each other in how quickly they could speak their lines? Ignoring the niceties of social propriety in Regency England (Lady Catherine’s night-time visit when the Bennets have already gone to bed) and apparently low social status of the Bennet family (who appeared to be living in a farmyard), this lively adaptation will not please purists but will delight those who do not work too hard at comparing it with the novel.
This adaptation of one of literature’s favourite novels fails on so many levels it is impossible to list them all. Why, one wonders, did the director decide to move the Bennet family down the social ladder, thus making the Bennet girls an even less attractive marriage prospect than they already were? Did the screenwriter really think she could improve on Austen’s dialogue, so crucial to an appreciation of Austen? Here, the witty, sparkling character of Elizabeth is reduced to a spiteful and at times rather rude young woman who appears to attract Darcy by her beauty rather than her wit. The inevitable pruning of the novel leads to some unfortunate gaps in the plot, notably concerning Wickham, whose seduction of Lydia has none of the shocking significance necessary to bring about the latter part of the story and Elizabeth’s eventual reunion with Darcy. Mrs Bennet looks more like the housekeeper, with roughened appearance and careworn resignation to her role as matchmaker for her five daughters, while Mr Bennet (played by Donald Sutherland, in an extraordinarily poor piece of casting presumably made to sell the film to American audiences), makes no effort to disguise his Canadian accent and does not appear to possess a razor. Judi Dench does her best in her heavily-cut scenes as Lady Catherine but Bingley is played as a tongue-tied fool whom it is difficult to imagine Jane wishing to marry. Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen look the part—Knightley is unusual in being the right age to play the twenty-year-old Elizabeth—and cannot be blamed for this very poor adaptation. Younger viewers may be inspired to read the novel to find out why Elizabeth is one of literature’s favourite heroines but this reviewer would advise anyone else to give it a miss.