Reviews Pride and Prejudice

Movie Reviews  

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Rating: PG
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: Nov 11, 2005
Review Posted: Nov 11, 2005

Reviewed by Sara Michelle Fetters

Taking Pride in a New Prejudice


Going into the latest version of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” I couldn’t stop myself from wondering why a new take on the novel was even necessary. How many times has this movie been made? I mean, tell me I’m wrong, but it certainly feels like five, maybe six times, and the last thing I thought the world needed was another.


Okay, so I was wrong. Not only has there only been one other theatrical version of Austen’s timeless tale (the delightful 1940 version with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson), this one is so blissfully entertaining I completely forgot why I had reservations in the first place. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have streamlined the author’s voluminous prose splendidly, and combined with spirited and emotional performances by seemingly the entire cast this first take on “Pride & Prejudice” in the new millenium is nothing less than a three-hankie masterpiece.


That doesn’t mean, I however, I was completely remiss in my pre-movie assessment. Even though there has only been one other big screen take on this, it isn’t exactly like the novel hasn’t been filmed a few times. Five, to be exact, for television, in the years 1938, 1952, 1967, 1980 and 1995. Those latter two, both BBC productions, are downright seminal, virtually flawless in almost every conceivable way. Heck, even ten years later and you can’t shake a stick without hitting a woman (and some men) who get all week in the knees thinking about Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the most current remake, myself included.


But I’m not going to hold Wright or his team over a barrel on that front. Taken on its own wondrous merits, this version of “Pride & Prejudice” is an unabashed delight from almost first frame to last. Every one of my fears, all of my apprehensions, were quickly beaten down one by one, the director and his cast winning me over completely with the gracefully entertaining ease in which they could make me smile.


For those unfamiliar with the book (and with even those whom have never read the book being familiar with it I’m speaking to a miniscule few), “Pride & Prejudice” concerns itself with the travails of the Bennet family. Most notably second oldest sister Elizabeth, or Lizzie (Keira Knightley), an outspoken and forthright 20-year-old who tends to say what’s on her mind no matter what the consequences.


Unfortunately, those consequences could prove dire for her family. With four sisters; soft-spoken but beautiful eldest Jane (Rasamund Pike), younger sisters Lydia (Jena Malone), Mary (Talulah Riley) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan); and a father (Donald Sutherland) easing towards his last days, the Bennet’s only chance for survival outside the poor house is to marry. In 18th century Britain women could not inherit property, and the girl’s busybody mother (Brenda Blethyn) knows the family will be in peril unless one – and preferably all – of her daughters can find an available, hopefully well-off, husband.


Enter wealthy and attractive bachelor Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). Mrs. Bennet realizes right away he’d be perfect for her eldest, doing all she can think of to put him and Jane in close proximity to one another. And he’s smitten by her, too, almost immediately, and it looks like all of the Bennet’s problems will be over with a single proposal. But there is a wild card to all this matchmaking packaged in the form of the ruggedly handsome, and apparently snobbish, Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), an even wealthier landowner who looks at the whole romance between his friend and the blonde ingenue as foolishness.


Yet, he, too, has become infatuated with one of the Bennet women, Darcy and Lizzie engaging in a battle of the sexes sure to go down as one the greatest in history. On the surface, these two appear to not be able to stand one another, she for his apparent hard-heartedness and he for her apparent lack of modesty in both voice and action. But their encounters are frequent, and the spirited discussions between the two of them belie something more both are loath to admit. Numerous complication ensue, but the one thing forever keeping them apart is their equally unwavering pride, sure to kill any chance of romance before it even has a chance to begin.


The template for the romantic comedy as we know it was set with this novel’s publication in 1813. Without it, would Grant (or Tracy, for that matter) ever have wooed Hepburn? Could Ryan have left Hanks so sleepless? Should Zellweger have admitted to being had at hello by Cruise? Maybe, but without Austen putting pen to paper and crafting such iconic characters all their jobs would certainly have been much more difficult. So that’s a pretty high bar. Not only do you have to do justice to a remarkable (if a bit limited in how it depicts the author’s world) novel, there’s the classic prior interpretations and a host of influential (and timeless) imitators to contend with.


Maybe because both Wright and Moggach are making their theatrical debuts they somehow manage to, not only not let the pressure get to them, but make it appear as if there isn’t any there to begin with. The movie is astonishingly proficient as it moves along, hitting its stride right at the start and than holding on to it for virtually the rest of its running time. There are, of course, speed bumps. Sutherland’s performance as the Bennet family patriarch is a tad underwhelming, while Malone just plain annoys as giggly (and energetically selfish) sister Lydia. Also, there is a time or two where Wright starts framing pretty post card images (most notably an almost slow motion reveal of Darcy emerging from the fog), and while they’re nice to look at these scenes don’t exactly propel the picture forward.


But they also don’t hurt it. The majority of the time Wright can do virtually no wrong. At just over two hours, the movie moves with remarkable swiftness, and even though Austen’s prose has been heavily pared down Moggach’s screenplay never feels like Cliff’s Notes. Better, the duo is blessed with two romantically stirring performances by both Knightley and Macfadyen, each turning in career-best work in roles that easily could have made the two of them look like fools.


For Knightley, this is especially good news. As gorgeous as the actress is, she doesn’t exactly light the screen ablaze with her talent. Until now her most indelible impression wasn’t made in “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Love Actually” but in the heartwarming soccer comedy “Bend It Like Beckham.” While I’ve never had anything against her (and lord knows I’ve had a moment or two I wished I looked half as good as her), I can’t say she’s ever exactly made me feel giddy. That changes here, though, “Pride & Prejudice” probably falling on its big melodramatic (and well-coifed) head without her.


There is fine work all over, though. Blethyn is delightfully (and endearingly) annoying as the over-zealous Mrs. Bennet, and Tom Hollander is suitably prickly as the uncomfortably fastidious Mr. Collins. Pike is a beautiful, almost mannequin-like internal mystery as Jane, while Woods is energetically divine as her jumpy and insecure suitor Bingley. It is Judi Dench, unsurprisingly, who towers above the rest of the supporting cast as the unctuous and narrow-minded Lady Catherine de Bourg. Her two scenes are electric, taking control so authoritatively that when Lizzie finally turns the tables and stands up to her the audience can’t help but lose their collective breath.


It’s been a while since Ang Lee took Austen and made her electric and alive cinematically again with his take on “Sense & Sensibility.” Like that film, on the surface “Pride & Prejudice” looks like a worthless exercise in going through the motions only to prove in actuality to be something kinetic and worthy of celebration. While not quite the immediate classic Lee’s film was, Wright has sill made a romance worth swooning over. It is a wonderful movie, a picture that reminds us all that love, real heartfelt chokes you up and make you act like a fool love, seldom occurs without a fight.


And it’s that fight – it’s ups, downs, in-betweens and what the heck just happeneds – that we remember for years, maybe the rest of our lives. Just like the novel. Just, I can’t help but hope, like this movie.


Film Rating: êêê1/2  (out of 4)