After a deluge of Jane Austen adaptations in the 1990s, including Persuasion, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, and Amy Heckerling’s critics’ favorite, the boldly funny and iconic Clueless (which preserved the essence of Austen better than those other stiff upper-lipped versions ever did), one might wonder why we need another one midway through a new decade. We don’t, especially since the ’90s also saw a BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, which any in-heat female will tell you is memorable for Colin Firth’s dive into a lake but anyone thinking with the organ between their ears will tell you it is notable for a breakout role for the marvelous Jennifer Ehle, playing heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Joe Wright’s debut film tries hard for shards of realism (overlapping conversations a la Altman, natural lighting, costumes that look like they’ve been pressed with a meat grinder) to distance the viewer from the glossier appearances of costume dramas. But even in its stripped-down form, there’s almost nothing here you haven’t seen before.
If you’ve ever read a book or seen any movie of Austen’s work, you know the drill: bright, lithely defiant young woman (Keira Knightley in her first truly dignified, memorable performance) struggles with identity in class-torn Britain, especially when a hunky but reticent would-be beau (Matthew Macfadyen) enters the picture. Papa (Donald Sutherland) is the calm voice of reason and Mother Bennet (Brenda Blethyn, in squealing Little Voice mode) is overbearing and too eager to marry off her chicks. There’s also plenty of rain—the kind that drenches the film’s attractive people as they lust after each other, and even when they’re arguing about values and the like.
Here, young Elizabeth is framed as a beacon of light in almost every tableaux, especially where her boisterous family is concerned, who more often resemble the Munsters than a lower-middle class brood. Or maybe it’s the grave miscasting that makes it seem that way. Save for Rosamund Pike’s lovely elder sis, the Bennets make no compositional sense. Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as husband and wife? The verrrry American Jena Malone as a bratty Brit? It would help if they convinced as a family, but only Knightley creates any supple sense of such. The actors seem to be acting in different movies, and all the steadicam shots in the world cannot disguise the movie’s failure to create a sturdy unit in the household.
Poor Elizabeth’s love interest is, as Little Women’s Jo March would say, “dull as powder.” It’s a noble idea to cast the now-legendary character Mr. Darcy as an everyman type, good-looking but often of a shabby variety, and a tinge of spiteful hauteur instead of bored chivalry. Darcy here, however, always looks like he overdosed on a plate of quaaludes before each take, and Macfadyen’s sleepy, uninteresting take on the role ends up backfiring as a result. Knightley always seems to be too vibrant for him, and even with some of the power-shifting the movie takes liberties with, it simply doesn’t add up.
Writer Deborah Moggach’s adaptation is sleek but lacks the judiciousness Emma Thompson brought to her terrific screenplay for Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility. And some of the tropes of this kind of period effort are still stale, especially the requisite foppish twit (Tom Hollander) who is so broadly played here he barely seems human, and the Very Important Actor who makes a grandstanding and urgent appearance. In this case (as the trailer gives away), it is Dame Judi Dench, whose all-powerful presence so clearly inspires the awe of the filmmakers, you half expect a cloud of smoke to accompany her entrance. But at least Dench relishes playing a real bitch, even if her portrayal, like the movie itself, is the ultimate case of familiarity.
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