Shiny Shelf

Pride and Prejudice

By Jim Smith on 08 November 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

That the Andrew Davies scripted BBC ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was over ten years now is a source of some small distress to me. It doesn’t seem *that* long ago and it was the proximity of this excellent, and much feted, production that meant that I was initially slightly taken aback by the announcement of a ‘Working Title’ adaptation of the novel.

After all, the cultural aftershocks, so to speak, of that BBC production are still being felt via the story (and, eventually, cast) being co-opted by Helen Fielding/Bridget Jones and the pseudo-bollywood version ‘Bride and Prejudice’ had openly taken its inspiration from elements of Davies’ adaptation. Surely it was simply too soon?

Thoughts like this are, of course, foolish. ‘P&P’ is one of the best novels in the English language, a piece that has been adapted, cosseted, maligned and celebrated for nearly two hundred years now – and it’s going to be a source of adaptation and pastiche on a regular basis; and this imaginative, instinctively right adaptation of Austen’s novel is far from mere homage.

Trimming the novel’s plot down to two hours is accomplished admirably, principally by conflation of scenes, moving Austen’s dialogue out of cancelled sequences and into others, and the removal of one Bingley sister entirely. The script allows us to see that substantial time is passing for the characters without letting us think that we’ve missed important events or that the time scale has gone all screwy (Stephen Kloves, take note please) and Austen’s wit, characterisation and – most importantly – the gigantic clash of the two entirely compatible, eminently suited egos Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) and Lizzie (Keira Knightley).

Knightley is brilliant here, petulant, witty, charming, sweet, dissembling, caring, clever, excitable, cynical, witty, beautiful, funny, compassionate, determined, stubborn and proud; sometimes all in the same scene. Why she so utterly transfixes Darcy is instantly clear, and why she can’t stand him is equally so. Knightley may very well get an Oscar nomination for this role, it would be entirely deserved. It sees her emerges as an actress rather than just a movie star, if you were so minded you could call it her first mature work.

The film also forces one to ask a simple question: why would anyone hire Clive Owen for anything when they could get MacFadyen instead; MacFadyen who is similar in many ways but clearly a gazillion times better. Not only can he act in the way that Owen fundamentally can’t, he can actually act exceptionally well. Sliding from seemingly effortless physical comedy (watch the way he keeps standing them sitting when Lizzie founds out that Lydia has run away) to glowering anger and protestations of love that seem to terrify the character, MacFadyen gives a star making performance all of his own.

His Darcy is, from the the off, a complex, sensitive man who is a little awkward around those he doesn’t know and who puts up vast emotional defences for a number of reasons. This isn’t the usual way of playing the part. Normally the audience, like Lizzie, thinks he’s an absolute sod until events prove otherwise. While the novel itself doesn’t entirely expect you to believe that, it’s an easier route to take on screen – that the film eschews this despite its fairly brief running time is an indication of the confidence of the production.

The rest of the cast also do very well; Brenda Blethyn brings a greater warmth and fragility to Mrs Bennett than I might have expected (less scheming more desperate – a characterisation in line with the grubbier, grimier world that these characters inhabit) and Judi Dench is fabulous as Darcy imperious Aunt. Donald Sutherland, seemingly an odd choice for Lizzie’s Father, mumbles his way through many scenes in a way that suggests he’s either uninterested or befuddled by the essential wit of the character. Then, suddenly, just when he needs to (such as in the very final scene) he turns on all of the powers that made people label him amongst the finest actors of his generation and you can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.

Human and hopeful, funny and romantic, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the kind of film where you come out of the cinema on a kind of little high, feeling as if nothing in the world could ever possibly take you down. Simply glorious.

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