Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Judi Dench, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Simon Woods, Rupert Friend, Claudie Blakley

Directed by: Joe Wright

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Windswept moorlands and dishevelled hair, muddy hemlines and walking boots. is this Pride & Prejudice or Wuthering Heights? It's Jane Austen, Jim, but not as we know it.

Rosamund Pike and Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice

Director Joe Wright (the man behind the at times unpleasantly oversexed Charles II mini series starring Rufus Sewell) replaces the traditional picture perfect parlours and elegant coiffeurs with sweaty country dance halls and hairstyles that come courtesy of several hedges and a lot of vigorous dragging backwards. The Bennetts' modest Hertfordshire retreat is transformed into a bucolic working farm, ankle deep in mud and flapping geese, complete with rustic labourers and Constable style haywains, more Tom Jones than Pride & Prejudice, whilst Mr Bennett himself (Donald Sutherland) looks positively grizzled, a Captain Ahab in the making.

But wait. In case there's anybody out there who doesn't know the plot of Pride & Prejudice (and if not, where have you been? Have you not see Bridget Jones's Diary?), a quick resumé. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Step up Mr and Mrs Bennett and their five daughters: beautiful, placid Jane, spirited, quick witted Elizabeth, serious minded Mary and flirty, flighty and virtually indistinguishable Kitty and Lydia. As Mr Bennett's estate is entailed onto a male relative, Mr Collins, marriage is the Bennett sisters' only chance of escaping poverty. So when the highly eligible Mr Bingley (a gentlemen with £5,000 a year, no less) rents nearby Netherfield Hall, Mrs Bennett soon has him in her sights as a potential husband. And with Mr Bingley comes Mr Darcy, the haughty, stiff-necked snob who somehow ends up falling for Elizabeth.

See, the thing people who've never read Jane Austen don't understand is that her books aren't really about bonnets and balls, soppy love and giggly girl stuff, at all. What Austen writes so brilliantly and perceptively about is money (or, often, the lack of it). Her books deal, pragmatically, with the cold hard economics of the marriage market, the only area of commerce in which women could interact, where beauty and brains could earn one a fortune (£10,000 a year, in Lizzie's case) and one rash gamble could damn you to a lifetime of impecunity (Lydia - whose shotgun wedding to the dashing Orlando Bloom lookalike Mr Wickham can only end in debt and disaster).

And it's this aspect of Austen which Wright's Pride & Prejudice captures brilliantly. For a start, all five daughters actually feature (and they're all young as well - no blushing thirty-year-olds squeezed into shift dresses). Crowded round the dinner table, squeezed onto sofas, tumbling into parlours after eavesdropping at the keyhole - despite the impressive size of the Bennett home, there simply isn't room for so much dishevelled, ultimately useless femininity. They simply have to go, to homes of their own. Plain, slope-shouldered Charlotte Lucas (Claudie Blakley) understands this perfectly. Pretty, sparky Lizzie may turn down the toadying Mr Collins, but for the twenty-seven-year-old spinster Charlotte, too long a burden to her parents, his offer of marriage is a lifeline, a chance to have something of her own.

Is it a coincidence that Lizzie begins to rethink Mr Darcy's marriage proposal after seeing his fabulous estate at Pemberly? Of course not - the place is amazing, who wouldn't be kicking themselves? In Andrew Davies' 1995 TV adaptation, the splendours of Pemberly are accompanied by the, um, splendours of Colin Firth's backside, and we're left to make up our own minds as to which holds more sway. Here the only naked bums on display are in the chilly statue gallery: it's money that's making an impact, not manliness.

Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in Pride & Prejudice

Passionless? Well, yes. Whilst Andrew (Tipping the Velvet) Davies' screenplay oozed sex from every pore and was positively heaving with bursting bosoms and taut buttocks, this new version is curiously devoid of sex appeal. Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennett is the very antithesis of the busty, arch Lizzie portrayed by Jennifer Ehle, who looked as if she couldn't wait to jump between the sheets with Mr D, £10,000 a year or no. But whilst no-one can deny that Keira is a lovely looking girl, that doesn't stop her spending a large part of the film looking like a skeleton in a wig, all gleaming white teeth and jutting jaw. Meanwhile, Matthew MacFadyen's Mr Darcy is a tasty piece of eye candy but you never really believe that he's in love with Elizabeth. Their relationship is brittle and witty - there's chemistry, certainly, but not of the sexual kind.

Far more engaging than the central characters, however, are those floating around the edges: Brenda Blethyn's marvellously overwrought Mrs Bennett, the hard-nosed marriage broker with a well concealed heart of gold, so garrulously awful we can almost sympathise with Darcy's desire to rescue his friend from her clutches; Simon Wood's charmingly hopeless, ginger- haired Mr Bingley, a nice but dim upper class twit controlled by his glacial bitch of a sister Caroline (Kelly Reilly); Judi Dench's magnificent Lady Catherine De Bourg - she could play the role in her sleep of course, but that doesn't stop her stealing her scenes with gusto.

Lovely looking girl or skeleton in a wig? Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice

Best of all, however, is Mr Collins, placed by Tom Hollander (next to be seen in The Libertine and Pirates of the Caribbean 2, alongside a certain Mr Depp). It's easy to overplay the obsequious, self-important parson, but Hollander's performance is judged to perfection: pedantically tactless and toe-curlingly sycophantic, his flat Estuary accent and po face are a cringeworthy delight.

As for the ending, well, everyone knows what happens: there's really no need to drag it out with so much over-explanation. (It's for the Americans, apparently. In case they haven't seen Bridget Jones.) And while opting out of a cheesy double wedding scene is fair enough, denying us one final kiss? Boo!

Like the cold white marble busts in Mr Darcy's home, Pride & Prejudice is fantastic to look at, a real work of art, but somehow lacking in passion and soul. It's captured to perfection the economics of Austen's novel, but lost the heart along the way. As a period drama it's beautiful, full of excellent, well researched and utterly delightful detail, but as a romance it falls a wee bit flat. Refreshingly free of Boobs & Bonnets, this Prim & Practical rewrite of Pride & Prejudice could nevertheless have benefited from a little more Heart & Soul.

  • Share on Tumblr