PRIDE AND PREJUDICE directed by Joe Wright, written by Deborah Moggach from the novel by Jane Austen, with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. A Universal release. 126 minutes. Opens Friday (November 11). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN
After the acclaimed 1995 BBC miniseries - the one that made an unlikely heartthrob out of Colin Firth - do we really need a big-screen Pride And Prejudice? Judging from young Brit director Joe Wright's new version, we do. Jane Austen's novel about marriage, manners and misunderstandings remains timeless. Rather than tart it up in modern or contemporary dress, Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach deliver a lively, faithful version that grabs our hearts and never lingers too long on its narrative points or its period details.
The winsome tone and point of view are established early on. Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), one of five daughters, eavesdrops on her parents' conversation about the arrival of a handsome and wealthy bachelor, Mr. Bingley, and soon the sisters are gossiping amongst themselves and attending a welcoming party, all accompanied by a catchy bit of piano music that takes on layers of emotional richness later on.
Wright can handle the big, lavish moments another party scene is a terrific set piece as well as the more intimate ones. And Moggach takes special care with the material's feminist subtext. You get a sense of women's limited power not just in the contrasting fortunes of the Bennet daughters but in two secondary characters: Judi Dench's angry, meddlesome widow and Claudie Blakley's plain, sensible woman who marries not for love but for survival.
Even the chattering Mrs. Bennet, an easy comic target, comes across as emotionally complex in Brenda Blethyn's controlled performance.
But any P&P lives or dies by its Elizabeth and her relationship with the gruff Mr. Darcy. Knightley's wonderful; with her bright eyes and small, expressive mouth, she easily suggests a quick wit and constant amusement, which makes her humbling discoveries in the latter half more moving. And Matthew MacFadyen's Darcy starts out believably pinched and proud, only to let loose some wardrobe choices take this literally in the end.