Twit Wit

Washington City Paper | November 10, 2005
Elizabeth Bennett is not a giggler. The heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is quick-witted and headstrong, capable of being charming and even playful but more known for sharply speaking her mind, even if it does ruin the mood. She’ll smile, she’ll laugh, but under no circumstances will Elizabeth titter like a schoolgirl.

Unless, that is, she’s being played by Keira Knightley. Straight from her miscasting as a bloodthirsty tough in Domino, Knightley is charged with another girl-power portrayal in British director Joe Wright’s version of the early-19th-century classic. And though she’s much better suited to this role than her last, Knightley’s dippy interpretation of Elizabeth undercuts the strength and appeal of Austen’s character—and therefore the love/hate romance at the novel’s center.

It doesn’t help that this seems to be the 100th recent retelling of the story. Actually, it’s only the second direct adaptation in 10 years—the first being the BBC’s acclaimed five-hour television series, aired in the United States in 1996—though the two Bridget Jones movies and last year’s Bride & Prejudice also recycled Austen’s characters and plot. Audience members who’ve grown weary of the protracted dance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) will probably find it difficult to muster any renewed interest with Knightley taking the lead.

First-time feature writer Deborah Moggach pared Austen’s complex tale to just over two hours, lessening the class conflicts and virtually ignoring some subplots, most glaringly Elizabeth’s flirtation with Lt. George Wickham (Rupert Friend). She also time-trips the story from 1813, the year of Pride and Prejudice’s publication, back to 1797, the year Austen began writing the book. The big picture, however, remains the same: Hysterical mother hen Mrs. Bennett (Brenda Blethyn) wants to get each of her five daughters married off, preferably to someone wealthy. When news that the rich Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) is coming to town, the sisters go batshit—their squeals get dangerously close to being something only dogs can hear—and put on their finery and happy faces in hope of attracting his attention at a ball. When the eldest and prettiest daughter, Jane (Rosamund Pike), does just that, Elizabeth tries to make nice with Bingley’s scowling friend Darcy—and gets shut down. But because of Jane and Bingley’s deepening romance, the now-antagonistic pair are destined to keep running into each other, with Elizabeth acting all quippy and critical and Darcy, well, scowling some more.

Seemingly angry instead of aloof, MacFadyen’s Darcy is a one-note character—which makes his later declaration of ardor for Elizabeth rather unbelievable. The flip side, of course, is that he’s hardly the kind of guy who would capture Elizabeth’s attention. That blushing twitter when she catches Darcy’s eye at the ball fades during their first frosty conversation, and there’s never any demonstration of how he goes from irritating to intriguing.

Bingley, too, is mischaracterized, though Woods’ portrayal of him as a cheery dope at least provides some comic relief. There are other entertaining depictions, as well: Blethyn’s chirpy Mrs. Bennett is overbearing and unapologetic in her single-minded goal, countered by Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennett, who’s content to linger in the background of this close-knit, chatter-filled household but occasionally serves as a slightly eye-rolling voice of reason. Among the sisters, Pike is lovely and demure as Jane, and if 15-year-old Lydia, who ends up running off with Wickham, is supposed to be brash and annoying, well, Jena Malone nailed it. Also sharp in their small roles are Tom Hollander as the unpleasant Mr. Collins, who’s to inherit the Bennett home and would like one of the daughters to come with it, and Judi Dench, who bitches it up as Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg.

The look of Pride & Prejudice is also impressive, with cinematographer Roman Osin lending lushness to the film’s outdoor scenes, from the dewy opening sunrise to the many rainstorms Elizabeth gets caught in. And Wright’s preference for long tracking shots, the most remarkable being an unhurried, room-to-room observation of the tiny dramas at a party, adds the grace that his film’s protagonist lacks. Such a pity, then, that Pride & Prejudice’s love story is—to be fair to Knightley—mishandled by everyone involved. Even Jane Austen would have giggled at a Pride and Prejudice that culminates not in a marriage but in moony-eyed cooing on a dock.

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