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Austen’s power
Keira Knightley puts it back into Pride and Prejudice

To judge from Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen may have invented the tracking shot. The moving camera takes charge from the first moment of the film, plowing over the grounds of the Bennet property, through muddy lanes and past paddocks of livestock and into the rabbit warren of the house itself. At the same time, the family assault the screen with such impossibly high spirits that you want to grab the younger Bennet sisters and send them to their room. No prim sense and sensibility here; the style seems more appropriate for a remake of Tom Jones.

No wonder Mr. Darcy (Matthew McFadyen) looks as if he’d just sniffed something that’s gone off when he makes his first appearance, at a local ball. I too wished I were elsewhere. Not just out of snobbery, but because the razzmatazz drowns out the Austen dialogue and her wickedly shrewd observations. This shouldn’t be a parade of period detail but a story about point of view, about how people perceive themselves and others.

Pride and prejudice, in other words, with Darcy embodying the former and Elizabeth Bennet the latter. But Keira Knightley as the coltish, savvy second-eldest of the Bennet litter restores the focus. She takes after her father (Donald Sutherland, with a fuzzy face and accent) with her sardonic eye and joy at absurdities. Unfortunately, that’s about all she’ll inherit from the old man. Like her siblings, she’s at the mercy of a good marriage, a project that concerns her little but is the obsession of her mother (Brenda Blethyn). Mrs. Bennet goes to work when Mr. Bingley (a bland and bumptious Simon Woods) takes up residence nearby. He’s a perfect match for eldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike), and indeed Bingley is enchanted. Not so his pal Darcy, a forbiddingly rich (his estate resembles the British Museum) and arrogant fop who finds the lowly Bennets unsuitable. All except for Elizabeth; as he sneaks glances at her, his face registers the stunned despair of the smitten.

Who wouldn’t be? Knightley embraces her character’s physical vitality and vividness of mind. She leaps stiles, delights in repartee, and takes in nearly everything: her family’s embarrassing crassness, Darcy’s disdain. But not enough: she fails to recognize either Darcy’s desire or her own, condemning him instead for his pride and power.

The filmmakers (with an uncredited script rewrite from Emma Thompson) deftly compress the narrative, submerging subplots (Mr. Collins, for one) in order to foreground the duel between Darcy and Elizabeth. And as Elizabeth tries to take charge of the situation, Wright forgoes his extravagances and allows the pair’s warring perceptions to prevail. At a second ball, both Wright and Elizabeth are at their best. While vainly trying to keep her family from the inevitable gaffes, Elizabeth nonetheless outmatches Darcy with ripostes during a quadrille. But looks say more than words, and when our heroes at last break through their vanities, the screen reveals what Austen only suggests.

Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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