2005, directed by Joe Wright
For most fans, Pride and Prejudice is their favourite book by Jane Austen (mine is Persuasion); it’s probably the best-known of her novels, and has been well-served with numerous screen (mostly television) adaptations. The BBC version of 1995, with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy has achieved some sort of pop culture reference point as the adaptation for comparison, and indeed it is a very good version of the book, its several hours’ running time enabling the full details of Austen’s plot and characters to be given adequate screen time.
The latest, and only the second, film version (2005), directed by Joe Wright, and starring Keira Knightley as Lizzie and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy, does struggle to compare with the BBC television version, since its shorter running time means that the secondary plots are only sketched. Mr Wickham’s involvement in both the Bennets’ lives and Darcy’s are perforce limited, which is a shame, because Rupert Friend does a good job with Wickham in his few minutes. However, there are a lot of very good things about this adaptation, which means that I (whisper it!) do actually prefer it to the 1995 version, despite its lesser fidelity to the source text.
Firstly, the casting is fantastic, and (in my opinion) preferable to the 1995 version in all respects. Quite apart from the main characters, Brenda Blethyn makes a likeable and understandable Mrs Bennet – vulgar, certainly, but not cringe-makingly so – Tom Hollander as Mr Collins beautifully conveys his self-regard without resorting to oleaginous parody, and Judi Dench is a wonderfully self-possessed and bossy Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lizzie’s sisters, Rosamund Pike (Jane), Talulah Riley (Mary), Carey Mulligan (Kitty) and Jena Malone (Lydia) are appropriately young, and serious or giggly as required: Pike is also believably prettier than Knightley, too, and she conveys Jane’s reticence and good nature very well. Claudie Blakley (so good as Mabel Nesbitt in Gosford Park) is excellent and touching as Lizzie’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas. Macfadyen plays Darcy as one who assumes hauteur of manner to disguise shyness, and his friendship with Simon Wood’s Bingley seems very realistic. Knightley is delightful as Lizzie – full of energy and humour, never at a loss for words – and it’s a shame she doesn’t have more scenes with Wickham, since their relationship is never deepened sufficiently to make Darcy’s revelations seem so shocking.
Secondly, the costumes and production design are gorgeous. Wright and his team chose to set the action in the late eighteenth century rather than around 1813, the novel’s publication date, partly to distinguish the costumes in particular from the Regency-style of the 1995 production. The lighting is natural, and the whole production was shot on location rather than on sets, which lends a lovely sense of realism to the film – the “muddy hem” version of Austen.
And thirdly, it’s beautifully shot by Wright and his cinematographer Roman Osin. There is a lovely tracking shot through the guests and dancers at the Netherfield ball, for example, and the locations are used to great advantage – Elizabeth admiring the glories of the Peak District, for example, the imposing stone frontages of several stately homes (Chatsworth, Burghley House, Basildon Park, and so on), and the gardens and belvedere of Stourhead during a rainstorm, where Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. Wright makes a feature of the outdoors, often showing characters walking along the river, or the mist curling off the grass in the sunrise. I particularly like how Mr and Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy are introduced at the public assembly at Meryton: the crowd parts, and the trio are conducted with some state by the Master of Ceremonies to places of honour: Macfadyen’s height here immediately makes him conspicuous (and later contrasts comically with Tom Hollander’s much shorter stature).
Deborah Moggach’s screenplay takes liberties with the novel, of course, but there’s enough of Austen’s dialogue to make it feel authentic, and although I’d quibble with how much of the Wickham storyline was left out, the novel wasn’t so hacked about as to end up unrecognizable. I should note that I watched the UK version, and liked the ending; there is an alternate ending, I gather, which got a lot of Austen purists up in arms.
So, this is a lovely (though not an entirely faithful) adaptation of an excellent novel, which is also a beautiful film (as is Wright’s version of Atonement, the only other of his films I’ve watched).