Pride & Prejudice, the latest take on Jane Austen's classic novel, is bound to face an uphill climb being one of the few in recent years not starring Colin Firth. However, if those still swooning over the brooding actor's shirtless appearance in the BBC adaptation of the book give this version a try they might be pleasantly surprised. What the film lacks in Firth it more than makes up for in other areas.
Although a few cuts are necessary for the film to achieve its brisk two hour running length, the basics of Austen's plot are left intact. The initial incident occurs when Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), a moderately prosperous farm girl, attends a dance at the recently inherited estate of the newly wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). The cheerful Bingley is the object of both Elizabeth and her elder sister Jane's affections, but the former winds up dancing with his morose friend Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden), a man whom she is considerably less attracted to. It makes for the first of many awkward encounters the two share during the film, amidst more balls, other bachelors, and an endless series of visits to other estates.
The set-up might sound tedious but Pride & Prejudice deserves credit for not giving the story an overly modern spin something hampering several recent period pieces. It's clear the Bennet girls and their friends are typical of their era and social standing, as they care lots for money, little for the servants in their midst and are wowed by displays of England's military might. In spite of all this, Elizabeth emerges a likeable character as she reveals herself to be crafty but also caring. Such a duality isn't easy, and Knightley deserves credit for pulling it off. If MacFayden isn't quite as good as her, it's because his character is less complex. Still, he manages to make Darcy caring when required near the film's end.
The film doesn't insist that all the characters be likeable and this paves the way for some of the funniest ones to emerge. Brenda Blethyn is hilarious as Elizabeth's excitable mother, as is Tom Hollander as a clergyman seeking her hand who's more pompous than pious. Judi Dench is even better as Lady Catherine de Bourg, Darcy's aunt, a woman whose haughty manner and constant withering stare make her both ridiculous and faintly menacing.
Dench's character is almost as ridiculous as some of the Hollywood romantic comedy gimmicks the film employs. At one point, when Jane and Elizabeth are lying in bed fantasizing about marriage to Mr. Bingley, the camera cuts to a protracted shot of the moon. Later on, when Elizabeth and Darcy are engaged in a tiff, they pause absurdly, lips inches apart, as though they are about to kiss. The modernity refreshingly absent in the rest of the film is all too present here.
Nonetheless, nearly everyone involved in creating the film--with the exception of those responsible for the gimmicks--has reason to be proud. The only person who might be dismayed is Colin Firth, unfortunately for him he can't go looking for another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to resurrect his career. This one is good enough to stave off further attempts for the next few years.