"Of all great writers," Virginia Woolf said of Jane Austen, "she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness." Today the rector's daughter from Steventon has an entire industry devoted to arguing her greatness and puzzling over why she's failed to shrivel in popularity after two full centuries. Part of the reason must be that her characters are deliberately spooned out of time; they live their lives in a country heaven, high-walled by greenery and far away from news of the Napoleonic wars raging around them, or any other change agents. In the latest attempt at the author's masterpiece, Pride & Prejudice, director Joe Wright acts as a loyal guardian to Austen's tightly-corseted vision of little England, and doesn't allow in anything that should upset her most ravenous fans. With cinematographer Roman Osin, he also demonstrates some fresh ideas about how to shoot a period picture. Tiny duckboard bridges, wild animals with proudly-swinging equipment, and the cramped spaces of a modest home are given as much attention here as the giant, corkscrew English elms that twist up and out of frame.
Not to suggest that there's any attempt to neglect story for scenery in this film. Wright is obligated to do justice to the sprawling taxonomy of the Bennett clan, each member of which undoubtedly has a worshipful sub-page on some AP English-Austen fan site. A bit of whittling is inevitable, of course, but it won't be missed because the principal characters are given the full treatment. First in rank is Elizabeth Bennett, brought to life by Keira Knightley, who strides onto the screen clutching a copy of the proto-Pride manuscript, First Impressions. She's an 18th-century fox, with tucked hair as short as a witch and legs taut and soccer-trained to deliver a swift strike to the generous derriere of her doppelganger, Bridget Jones. The eldest sister, Jane, is played by Rosamund Pike, a gorgeous blonde with sunken, cashew eyes who was most memorable as the turncoat double-O in Pierce Brosnan's unwitting hankie-waver, Die Another Day and will next be seen as Elizabeth Malet, wife of the Earl of Rochester (the poet of his own "smoking prick") in The Libertine.
The film's most scene-chewing role is that of Lady Catherine de Bourg, the old mummy who eventually tries to pop Elizabeth's balloon by informing her that she cannot marry who she wants because she is a woman "of inferior birth." Judi Dench is on speed-dial for roles like this, presumably. A few scraps in the film are also reserved for young Jena Malone as the eloping sister, Lydia, although her choices in the film are questionable enough to draw negative attention. With no makeup - or 'no-makeup' makeup - she looks like Typhoid Mary. Did the director give a brilliant speech during rehearsals about the danger of modern cosmetics to a period picture, and was she the only one taking notes? Apart from this one noticeable quirk, there's very little in the film that feels like it was not carefully thought out. Most of the costuming is impressive and should be remembered at Oscar time; the dresses of Elizabeth and her sisters appear to have been modeled on the revolutionary-era flapper wear that predominated well into the years of Napoleon's campaigns. Loose-fitting and a hundred years ahead of the blasted bra, they are fashions in tune with a brazenly sexual age gone by, rather than the one on the march.
The movie is, like the book, tethered to Elizabeth's story, and it's largely a 'mistaken identity' plot in which one false piece of information is enough to keep two intended lovers apart forever, potentially - a formula so familiar to modern audiences that it's been sourly tagged as the 'Idiot Plot' by at least one crabby Midwestern critic. Elizabeth oscillates between comically false suitors like her cousin, Collins (interpreted by Tom Hollander as some lost character from SCTV), and the dour, rich snob, Fitzwilliam Darcy, played by Matthew Macfadyen, who poses as a sort of semi-mute Galahad for the first half of the film. He's a little more talkative in the book, and a little more capable of defending himself against the charge of being anti-social, which is leveled regularly. His petulant, angry character is one of the most fascinating and frustrating to female readers and critics of the novel, and nothing new on that score can be added here, but I will report that his line "I do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before" drew a loud "ppbbbtth" noise from some dark corner of my screening room.
The good news is that Darcy is able to retain some of his best lines, including the deal-clincher "You have bewitched me, body and soul" and "Learn some of my philosophy - think only of the past as its remembrances give you pleasure." The film also makes good use of set pieces where cropped dialogue is arguably forgivable, like the elaborate Netherfield Ball dance sequence and the viewing at the Chatsworth Sculpture Gallery, where Elizabeth happens upon a bust of Darcy (that's how rich he is). If your appreciation of Austen is bound up more in her words than in the world that she paints, then you may be in trouble, because this is a film that makes use of visual opportunities. There's no doubt that the filmmakers must have suffered from Austen's tendency to have characters speak in uncut soliloquy, but I'm willing to go along with the idea that that's no excuse to crop key conversations down to a few traded soundbites.
The film is by and large an honest and robust interpretation, and it tries hard to evoke Richard II's sentimental notion of England as a "demi-paradise...built by Nature for herself." In other words, it's probably the best that can be done. Unless someone is hit with a desire to mount a Pride & Prejudice film that dictates all of Austen's dialogue and uses the rest as implicit stage direction, and succeeds in making that entertaining, this adaptation will probably stand as definitive. (A much earlier version, with Greer Garson as Elizabeth, is unseen by me but widely considered to be faulty.) Unlike Shakespeare, Jane Austen's language is not viewed as poetry unto itself, and the desire for a period-perfect interpretation of her work may fade over time, opening up new possibilities for re-invention but leaving more and more of her special quirks and attitudes to history. Bridget Jones may have the last laugh.