Joe Wright, UK 2005, 127 mins
Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Brenda Blethyn
Jane Austen's most famous novel has been dramatised for television five times, the last being the Andrew Davies's accomplished adaptation ten years ago starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth (him of the wet ruffled shirt) as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. This new version however is surprisingly only the second theatrical film to be based on the book. The first was made back in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.
Also surprising is the fact that this is a first feature film from director Joe Wright, who cut his directorial teeth in television with productions such as the miniseries "Charles II: The Power and the Passion" and "Bob and Rose" - I say surprising because this is a most impressive piece of direction. It is also an exceptionally well shot film. Both Wright and his director of photography Roman Osin are deeply in love with the beauties of the green English landscape and the architecture of the country houses and stately homes used as backdrops for the story, which include Chatsworth House, playing the role of Darcy's family home, and several times they use an effective technique used by Visconti in "The Leopard" and later Martin Scorsese in "The Age of Innocence" of tracking the camera through the various rooms, where a social gathering is taking place, weaving amongst the guests and putting the viewer in the position of one of them. They have also given the film the texture of the times. Those green fields have mud, the Bennet's home is comfortable but simple in comparison to their more affluent acquaintances and this is the first production where I've understood why Darcy regards the Bennet's and their community as country bumpkins when he first encounters them at a local country ball, which is more of a knees up than a smart social event. They do all look convincingly unsophisticated.
All these visuals are though contextual aids to telling the story of the Bennet family, Mrs Bennet's efforts to marry off her five daughters, and most particularly the bumpy love affair between Elizabeth the second eldest and the stand offish and incredibly wealthy Mr Darcy. Austen's justified gripe about the injustice of the inheritance laws, which favoured male heirs over female, thus making marriage an economic necessity for women, comes over very strongly. In the case of the Bennet family, when Mr Bennet dies all his property will go to his pompous clergyman relative Mr Collins, leaving his wife and daughters penniless, which gives poignancy and point to Mrs Bennet's often hysterical and vulgar desperation. Despite their genteel manners and speech and apparently comfortable lifestyle, you become aware that this law has turned the members of its society effectively into pimps, prostitutes and punters.
There are some fine performances in the film. Keira Knightly, although perhaps a bit young and over beautiful for there to be any danger of her being left on the shelf, makes a feisty and witty Elizabeth with a telling sphinxy smile. Matthew Macfadyen is particularly good as Darcy, a study in truly dislikeable self obsessed pomposity and snobbery for the first part of the film, then gradually revealing to us and Lizzie that he's a good guy after all. The scenes between them, such as Darcy's first proposal, when Lizzie rejects him, positively crackle with suppressed sexual attraction. Donald Sutherland manages a creditable English accent as the calmly stoic Mr Bennet, allowing the fretful agitation of his wife (Brenda Blethyn) to wash over him. Rosamund Pike is strong but touching as the eldest sister Jane, whose pending engagement to Darcy's friend Bingley is disrupted by Darcy's attempt to save his chum from what he sees as an unfortunate marriage, Tom Hollander is delightfully odious as Mr Collins, rejected by Lizzie, who can't face the thought of marrying him, even to provide for her family and there's a telling cameo from Judi Dench as Collins's odiously condescending patron, Lady Catherine de Bourg. And while the younger Bennet girls are a little irritating in their girlish twittering, taking somewhat after their mother, that is after all the characters they're playing.
Deborah Moggach's perceptive and witty script gives a contemporary resonance to the story, bringing out the conflict between economic survival and personal fulfilment and making it more than just another costume drama. Lizzy, lucky girl, wins the jackpot by risking all and sticking to her principles, though only by the skin of her teeth. While her more impecunious and less favoured friend Charlotte has to settle for Mr Collins.
This is a British film of which we can be justifiably proud.