Did we really need another film version of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice? The film has been made and remade for both TV and film for decades, most recently in 1996 with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. The Firth-Ehle version (a six-hour interpretation made for television) has a fervent following, making this iteration a particularly dicey proposition. Still, it’s been nearly a decade since “Austen fever” (which may in part have been fueled by the 1996 Pride) that brought to the screen Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Emma and Mansfield Park. With the exception of a few posthumous and unfinished works, those are all the books Austen wrote in her short life. So, while this ground has been covered before, really the only justification the new Pride and Prejudice needs is to be good—to capture the uniquely British charms of Austen’s writing.
With the cast they’ve assembled, it would seem that first-time writer Deborah Moggach and first-time director Joe Wright couldn’t go wrong—and yet they do. Sometimes all the individual components of a film seem perfect until they’re all assembled, at which point its flaws become blatantly apparent. To start, even though it’s a full four hours shorter than the 1996 incarnation, it’s a bore. The pace is deadly slow even though there is more than enough story to tell here. The cinematography is lush, but after awhile it becomes distracting—the endless beautiful shots of the English countryside were no doubt intended to remind the audience that this was an important, epic story; instead, it just drags out an already poorly-told story. The plot follows plucky Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley) and her eccentric, poor family (Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland play her parents, while Jena Malone and Rosamund Pike show up as some of Elizabeth’s sisters) in their pursuits of love, marriage and financial stability.
Like all Austen heroines, Elizabeth is bookish, impertinent and ferociously
independent and in her first meeting with the brusque town newcomer, Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden), her ire is raised. Here is where the movie loses its way. The love between Elizabeth and Darcy should come as a surprise—not necessarily to the audience, but to the characters, who spend much of the story fighting and bringing out the worst in each other. In Wright’s film, the two start looking moistly at each other almost from the beginning—killing any tension between them because the inevitable ending seems like more of a foregone conclusion than it should be.
The leads are miscast and fail to generate significant chemistry. Their first conflict revolves around Elizabeth overhearing Mr. Darcy calling her plain. This might be more convincing if Knightley’s porcelain features weren’t so lovingly filmed throughout. There are endless shots of Knightley looking wistful, hair and makeup perfectly composed—she’s like a 19 th century L’Oreal commercial. She’s also a bit of a dishrag, and while watching her half-hearted performance, I couldn’t help thinking what a slightly younger Kate Winslet could have done with this part. MacFayden (whose first significant role this is) is also not a dynamo. He seems a perfectly capable actor, but a heartthrob he is not and he fails to generate the charisma the character needs. It’s telling that the romantic travails of Elisabeth’s sister (well-played by Rosamund Pike, doing much better here than in the execrable The Libertine) are more interesting than the central romance.
The other supporting roles are negligible at best. Malone is irritating as one of the other chirpy Bennett sisters—her accent is bad and her performance is affected. Blethyn is way over the top as the mother, while the mumbly Sutherland (whose accent could also use some love) is ineffectual as the much-put-upon father. There’s even an obligatory Judi Dench cameo, wherein the dame plays—what else?—an old, British battleaxe. Dench isn’t bad (she’s quite capable in fact), but she’s played this type of part to better effect in other films—and in her scenes with Knightley, it is painfully obvious how out of her depth the young actress is. The fact that she got an Oscar nomination out of this speaks more to the pedigree of the source material rather than its interpretation here.
Pride and Prejudice isn’t a bad film on the level of say, Showgirls—it is just extremely disappointing. It is a misguided movie that squanders its few good moments and performances by failing to create any real sense of wit, romance or suspense.
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