||Over the years Hollywood has produced innumerable romantic comedies in which two people, obviously attracted to (and perfect for) one another, are kept apart by circumstances for a couple of hours until the artificial barriers between them are torn down and they wind up in each other’s arms. Most of them have been terrible, but British director Joe Wright’s new version of the Jane Austen tale which is the granddaddy of them all proves that if you only return to the source, and treat it if not with absolute fidelity at least with respect, the experience can be delightful. This is a lively, colorful, intelligent retelling of the template for all the later books and movies about two people obviously destined to be together who remain apart all too long due to misunderstandings and the machinations of others. Its sensibility is more modern than Austen's, of course, but that doesn't mean it's any less enjoyable on its own.
At just a bit over two hours, this “Pride and Prejudice” can’t include as much of the detail of Austen’s original as the well-regarded five-hour BBC mini-series of 1995, which starred Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. But in Deborah Moggach’s skillful adaptation it contains enough to convey the flavor of the book, as well as the basic plot, very successfully, though the tone is more overtly romantic; in this respect it’s certainly the equal of the famous 1940 film with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. And Wright proves remarkably adept at infusing the action not only with the serenity and charm it needs, but with lightness and vivacity as well, an effect achieved especially by his penchant for fast-moving tracking shots, beautifully managed by cinematographer Roman Osin. Osin’s luscious widescreen images have the benefit of focusing on lovely locations and utterly convincing period accouterments; the production design by Sarah Greenwood, art direction by Ian Baille, Mark Swain and Nick Gottschalk, set decoration by Katie Spencer and costumes by Jacqueline Durran are all superb. One could spend one’s time just luxuriating in the visual splendor on the screen, made even happier by Dario Marianelli’s pleasantly evocative score.
But the meat of the story is in the characters, of course, and here too the film proves outstanding. Keira Knightley makes ample amends for her dreadful performance in “Domino” by portraying the strong-willed, level-headed Elizabeth Bennet as a young woman of both (dare one say it) spunk and an undercurrent of melancholy. Matthew Macfadyen, happily not a conventionally handsome sort, matches her by capturing Darcy’s aristocratic demeanor and his inner conflict nicely. Together they make a couple that emphasizes the youthfulness and relative inexperience of Austen’s creations far more than was the case in any of the previous filmizations--which makes the tale not only more credible but somehow more poignant. Their excellence doesn’t stand alone; the supporting cast is superb, too, with Donald Sutherland wonderfully unruffled and sardonic as the put-upon Mr. Bennet and Brenda Blethyn keeping his wife--an unsophisticated woman obsessed with finding husbands for her many daughters, and a character that can easily become an irritation--within bounds. Rosamund Pike and Simon Woods make an appealing pair as the secondary couple in the mix, Elizabeth’s easily-hurt elder sister Jane and Darcy’s more ebullient friend Bingley, and Jena Malone is suitably flighty as the immature Lydia, whose infatuation with the handsome but unreliable Wickham (an appropriately smooth Rupert Friend) causes not only a Bennet family crisis but an opportunity that in time will lead to the resolution of the Elizabeth-Darcy impasse. If one can raise any qualifications about the casting, they’d have to concern Tom Hollander, who gives the stiff, obsequious Collins more of a conventionally comic tone than some might wish, and Judi Dench, whose Lady de Bourgh might seem too much the usual intrusive cameo (and whose final scene isn’t ideally staged). But you easily become acclimated to them, and in the end they fit Wright’s conception.
In fact, when looked at as a whole, there’s something just a bit miraculous about how enjoyable Wright’s film is. “Pride and Prejudice” may be the same old story about finding Mr. Right, but this movie shows that if your take on the familiar tale is sufficiently deft, it can be as fresh and enchanting as Austen’s book itself must have been in 1813.