Like its preternaturally attractive star Keira Knightley, the new adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” is very beautiful. Unfortunately, good looks are about all that Ms. Knightley and the film have going for them. This movie, the most recent addition to the long list of Jane Austen screen and television adaptations, marks the feature-film debut of director Joe Wright, whose previous experience had been in directing British television mini-series.
Perhaps because Mr. Wright is used to the more generous time frame allowed by a mini-series, he comes off as rather uncertain when working within the time constraints of a feature film. Even without making the inevitable comparison to the 1995 BBC miniseries, it is not impossible to imagine a decent feature-length adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” Douglas McGrath managed it in his 1996 “Emma” and Ang Lee did an excellent job in directing “Sense and Sensibility.” While the script, by Deborah Moggach, who had also written only for television movies, is generally faithful to the plot, it struggles in this effort to successfully and logically condense the novel into a feature-length running-time.
The adaptation has not, however, sacrificed any of its relatively large cast of main characters, although it is not always faithful to the personalities created by Austen. There are, of course, the five charming but penniless Bennett sisters, most importantly heroine Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) and her elder and more attractive (in the novel, at least) sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), along with their perpetually nervous mother Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn), who is impressively single-minded in her determination to marry off all her daughters. Donald Sutherland adopts an English accent to play Mr. Bennett, in a performance that overplays his apathy as a parent to an almost disturbing extent. The relatively unknown Matthew Macfayden, in taking on the role of Elizabeth’s love interest Mr. Darcy, also takes on the legacy of Colin Firth, who played Darcy in the now classic 1995 BBC mini-series.
Mr. Macfayden delivers a surprisingly decent performance as Darcy: slightly less manly than the Firth incarnation but also somewhat more believable as a haughty yet fundamentally awkward rich man. That he would ever be able to pronounce Ms. Knightley’s Elizabeth “not handsome enough to tempt me,” as he does in one of the opening scenes, is somewhat less believable and mostly the fault of casting Ms. Knightley as a character whose attractions are supposed to stem first from her lively wit and intelligence, which she has noticeably more trouble summoning than her frequent pout. The film enjoys capturing Elizabeth gazing at herself in mirrors, which must be intended to symbolize some sort of self-reflection but instead comes off as perverse proof that she too is unable to tear herself away from her own loveliness.
The only thing to rival Ms. Knightley in beauty is the film itself. As shot by cinematographer Roman Osin, the movie is gorgeously lit in a sedate style reminiscent of a Dutch genre painting. With the addition of impressive costumes and sets, scenes are frequently breathtakingly beautiful, especially at times when the camera pulls back to take in the verdant English scenery or the sumptuousness of a ball. When such visual splendor is complemented by the truly delightful soundtrack composed by Dario Marianelli, it is tempting to give oneself over to the sensory attractions of this movie.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what seems to have happened to Mr. Wright, who dedicates a sizable portion of the film to long shots of nature – think streams, geese taking flight, etc – or of characters walking or looking at things for unduly long amounts of time in ways that neither advance nor complement the plot. A particularly noticeable case occurs when Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Darcy’s country estate, and the film dedicates a good few minutes to her looking at his magnificent collection of sensual nude sculptures in a scene that is at once bizarrely voyeuristic and completely unnecessary.
When the film awakens from these digressions, it jumps back into the plot with such frenetic energy that chapters of the novel must be cut out or dashed through in a matter of minutes, leaving one of with an uncomfortable sense of cinematic whiplash.
That most plot points occur in such rapid succession makes watching the film difficult and confusing, especially for someone who is not familiar with the novel. The viewer who is relatively ignorant of Austen’s writing would, however, be at an advantage when it comes to the dialogue of the movie. While many scenes are lifted directly from the novel, a surprising amount of the dialogue is not. Ms. Moggach appears to entertain the quixotic belief that she can express Austen better than Austen herself. As such, she has replaced the novel’s language with dialogue that merely captures the gist of scene. If this were for a good reason, it might make sense. But it simply sounds wrong, as if the actors had failed to remember their lines and therefore substituted their own pseudo-Regency period language in its place.
Though every movie is, of course, allowed to take its liberties with character, plot and dialogue, “Pride and Prejudice” does so in a way that is fundamentally to its detriment. When Mr. Darcy strides across a heath with his shirt half-open to make the apocryphal declaration to an uncharacteristically distressed Elizabeth that, “you have bewitched me, body and soul,” I began to wonder if perhaps many of the inconsistencies of the film could simply be explained if Mr. Wright and Ms. Moggach confessed that they mistakenly believed they were adapting a Bronte novel. Whatever the explanation, the sad truth is that this movie is not made in the spirit of upholding Austen’s writing or even of offering a version of Austen that is accessible and enjoyable to viewers. As Elizabeth Bennett declares in the novel – but not in this film – “follies and whims do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” Unfortunately, the follies of this film were not diverting enough to make me laugh. They simply disappointed me.