Where "Pride" goeth before (USA Today)

Where 'Pride' goeth before

TORONTO — Keira Knightley may have been only 19 when she signed on for the coveted role of headstrong Elizabeth Bennet, author Jane Austen's most cherished heroine, in the sprightly new film version of Pride & Prejudice that opens in limited U.S. release Friday. But she was all too aware of what she faced.

Constant comparisons. To the 1813 novel. To the 1940 big-screen version. To the hugely popular 1995 BBC miniseries. And to the society-driven world of Austen that exists in the imaginations of those who adore her work.

"It's an enormously difficult part because it is so loved," says the self-possessed Pirates of the Caribbean beauty, now 20, in her breathless way while attending the film festival here. "Any woman who reads the book sees themselves as Elizabeth Bennet."

But much like her feisty Lizzy, Knightley refused to allow the opinions of others to intimidate her. "Whether people say, 'She's too young or she's pretty or she's (expletive),' in general, you just kind of go, 'OK, but I love the book and therefore I did see myself as Elizabeth Bennet and I did it.' " (Related gallery: Plot primer)

Unlike his star, however, director Joe Wright, 33, never before had the urge to crack open a copy of the literary classic about five sisters and their social-climbing pursuit of wealthy husbands, often described as the most widely read novel in the English language.

Nor did the Brit ever see the six-part BBC adaptation that created a national frenzy a decade ago, drawing nearly half of all TV watchers in the United Kingdom.

  'Pride' through the years    


He was, however, slightly aware that the mania was inflamed by a scene not found in Austen's writing: A snobbish Mr. Darcy, played by a then-unknown Colin Firth, douses his desire for a distant Elizabeth with a dunk in a pond. Result: gorgeous man in a dripping, see-through shirt. Not since Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep has a wet garment done so much for a career.

Wright wasn't even that keen on switching mediums. He was content to specialize in TV miniseries, winning praise and awards for his most recent effort, 2003's Charles II: The Power & the Passion.

But then, Wright was sent the script to Pride & Prejudice. "I read it in the pub one Sunday afternoon," he recalls, "and by about page 60, I was weeping into my pints of lager. And I was laughing out loud as well and surprised by that."

That's when Wright finally checked out the source material. "I read the novel and I was shocked by what an extraordinary piece of observation it was. How honest and truthful its writing was. I was also shocked by the ages of the characters (Elizabeth is 20 and Darcy is 28). It struck me that these were young people experiencing these emotions for the first time."

The first movie version, mildly diverting if highly inauthentic, got off easy when it came out in 1940. The leads, Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, were too old (both were in their mid-30s). The Victorian costumes, many pinched from the previous year's Gone With the Wind to defray costs, were decades off, and one of Austen's most hissable grande dames, the officious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was declawed.

For all its flaws, though, this Hollywood-lite dalliance has gone unchallenged on the big screen. That's in spite of the current unabated hunger for all things Austen. Most of her precious few novels — she wrote six before her death at 41- made the transition to film in the past 10 years. Even updated riffs on Pride and Prejudice, such as 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary and last year's bouncy Bollywood-style Bride & Prejudice, have met with success.

Yet no one has dared to revisit her most popular book in all its historical glory — until now.

Wright's lack of prior knowledge may have been a godsend, freeing him of any fear of prejudice from Janeites (Austen purists, who consider the text sacred and the BBC miniseries definitive) or concern about putting his pride on the line (there's always TV, after all).

Instead, he focused on translating Austen's sharp-witted insights on human nature into a cinematic experience that would please those familiar with her words but also entice a new generation to embrace this Pride & Prejudice as their own.

He also enlisted actress Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her Austen-based screenplay of 1995's Sense and Sensibility, as an adviser. How Wright tried to not get it wrong:

Make them go "Colin who?" It's an unenviable task, but someone had to step into Firth's soggy boots as Darcy. "The problem with a role like Darcy," the director says, "is that it is like Hamlet. If you thought about who had played it before, you'd never play Hamlet again."

Wright went with the Darcy he saw in his head, a vulnerable young man with big responsibilities after the death of his parents who suffers from a lack of social graces. "He put on a suit of manhood that didn't quite fit him," he says, "and Elizabeth teaches him how to be a man."

His choice: Matthew Macfadyen, best known as a government agent on the British TV series Spooks (retitled MI-5 in the USA). Like his director, the strapping 6-foot-2 actor, 31, knew of the fierce devotion to the BBC series, but never felt daunted by it. "There was nothing to lose," he says. "If anything, I was more bemused by other people's reactions. It was a lovely part to play and, career-wise, a peachy part to get. I'm a huge Colin Firth fan, anyway, so I'm in good company."

Macfadyen did win over at least one Firth fancier: Knightley. "I loved Colin's Darcy. You can't not. But that's fine. Because you can love more than one."

Go realistic. Dirt, dust, disheveled hair, clumsy dancing, messy drawing rooms, rumpled clothing and a hog outside the door whose rather large testicles put in a surprising cameo. If one drew up a list of items rarely seen in literary period pieces of the Merchant-Ivory school, these taboos would definitely make the cut.

But Wright took a grittier if more honest route. As he has said of his Pride & Prejudice, "I wanted to treat it as a piece of British realism rather than going with the picturesque tradition, which tends to depict an idealized version of English heritage as some kind of heaven on Earth."

"The muddy-hem version" is what screenwriter Deborah Moggach dubs this Pride. The members of the Bennet household, who are of a lower class of gentry than their richer neighbors, also were encouraged to be as loud and disorderly as only a family with five post-pubescent daughters can be.

"We had the Bennet giggle," says Knightley of the way she and the four actresses who played her sisters set the mood before each scene. "It's a high-pitched, screaming, chaotic monkey-like giggle that would get us into it. Joe wanted us to always speak over each other so you got the feeling of people who are so used to each other, they don't even listen anymore. I do think it will make it more accessible."

As for the not-so-little piggy, Wright says, "It made me laugh, so I put it in."

Go quickly. Rarely has a story set in the past moved at such a clip as the camera careens through rooms and circles around the action. At one point, Lizzy reflects on life amid pastoral beauty while spinning about in a swing as time literally passes by around her.

"I found cinematic equivalents to Austen's prose," Wright says. "Her observations of human emotion suggest to me close-ups, not sweeping panoramas. She writes details about the mechanics of social interaction, so that's why there are so many close-ups."

Even the dancing sequences employ cleverly choreographed dialogue exchanges so that the scenes are full of information, not just pretty people going through the motions.

Go sexier. Much as Franco Zeffirelli's age-appropriate Romeoand Juliet turned teens on to Shakespeare in 1968, this Pride &Prejudice also aims to woo a date crowd beyond English majors.

Physical contact is kept to a minimum both in the book and the movie. But Elizabeth and Darcy's slow-burning emotions are often economically and elegantly expressed through unconscious actions. As when, after innocently holding Lizzy's hand as she steps out of a carriage, Darcy's fingers are shown gently curling, as if recalling the touch of her flesh.

Most memorably, the movie replaces Elizabeth's view-altering tour of a portrait gallery inside Darcy's Pemberley estate with a stroll through a maze of alabaster nude sculptures, her eyes devouring their voluptuous beauty.

"I have an issue with the book, which a lot of people also have," Wright says. "Why is it, when Elizabeth goes to Pemberley, she finally accepts she likes Darcy? Is it because of his wealth? What I was hoping to achieve was a sense of her appreciating his cultural sensitivity."

Though the film took some early hits in the press (much of it, unsurprisingly, focused on Macfadyen's perceived inferiority to Firth), Pride & Prejudice conquered England and the rest of the U.K. when it opened Sept. 16. It twirled to the top of the box office for a three-week stay, grossing a sizeable dowry of $25 million-plus.

Even the most skeptical critics acknowledged how Wright's realistic approach briskly tramples over stuffy genre conventions while injecting fresh air into a nearly 200-year-old classic.

"This is a much earthier Austen than we've been used to seeing," observed a typically complimentary review in The Independent. "This is very much a director's film, and Wright has a keen eye for symmetry, colour and witty composition."

Meanwhile, response on the Internet Movie Database site — about 180 user comments so far, most from the U.K. — has been running about 3 to 2 in favor of the new version.

The Jane Austen Society of North America added its two pence after a screening at an annual meeting in early October. The ones who enjoyed it most, including president-elect Marsha Huff, accepted that a two-hour-plus adaptation would have to skim off much of the subtle complexities of the novel. "It's a great introduction to Jane Austen for those who haven't read her," she says, "and an excellent film by itself. It will lead a lot of people to Jane."

As for the film's Lizzy and Darcy, "It didn't take me long to like them both."

Or, as a relieved Macfadyen says, "We got away with it."