Running Time: 127 mins
Rated: Rated PG
This most popular of Jane Austen's novels is best-known for its many television versions, especially that of 1995 with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Last year, the plot was adapted (but followed the novel closely) for the very entertaining Bollywood-style extravaganza, Bride and Prejudice. Strange as it may seem, this present film is only the second version for the big screen. It is sixty five years since Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier were Miss Bennett and Mr Darcy.
Each version needs a good reason for superseding its predecessor. The question is, what does this 2005 version have to offer?
First of all, audiences will find it entertaining. Its recreation of the period, the era of war with Napoleon, is different. Instead of lavish Regency costumes and décor, director Joe Wright has opted for an earthier style. It is not glamorous. Rather, it reflects the social standing and family incomes (and lack of them) of families who were not considered part of 'society'. The Bennett family is not necessarily uncomfortable. But, with five daughters who need husbands to support them (according to the law, daughters could not inherit so estates went to male cousins like Mr Collins), matchmaking was a full-time occupation.
The director also opted for filming on location rather than in studios. A wide selection of homes throughout Britain were chosen. Ordinary homes with the touch of the farm served for the Bennets. Grandly elegant houses were used for Mr Darcy's home and that of Lady Catherine de Burgh. The buildings and interiors are impressive but the film also capitalises on both gentle and rugged locations in Derbyshire.
One of the key features of this version is that the actors are much the same age as the characters in the novel. Elizabeth Bennett is about twenty and Mr Darcy in his late 20s. Greer Garson, for instance, was at least twelve years older for the 1941 film and Laurence Oliver was in his early 30s. Colin Firth was, in fact, 35 when he played the part. This time Keira Knightly is almost twenty and Matthew McFadyen twenty eight.
This means that Elizabeth is a mixture of mischievous girlishness and intelligent shrewdness. Keira Knightly (who has risen quickly to stardom from Bend it Like Beckham to the Pirates of the Caribbean series) is pretty and pert. While she discovers she has been harshly prejudiced against Mr Darcy, it is the potential for maturity rather than maturity itself that the actress conveys. Matthew McFadyen is a very good Darcy. He alienates Elizabeth as well as the audience with his pride and his prejudices but, as he better understands himself and his feelings, we can understand how Elizabeth is attracted to him. Some of the intense interchanges between the two are quite powerful.
Mrs Bennett and her nerves have always been scene-stealers and Brenda Blethyn seems an obvious and good choice to play her. Surprisingly, Donald Sutherland plays the put-upon Mr Bennett. He is both genial and cowardly and the performance reminds us that he is to blame for not intervening in his daughters' upbringing and his wife's obsessive planning. He is not just simply the martyr to Mrs Bennett's hen-pecking.
Most of the rest of the cast have cameos. Rosamund Pike is a mopy Jane, Jena Malone a giggly and flirtatious Lydia. A standout is Tom Hollander as Mr Collins in his wilfully obtuse proposing to Elizabeth as well as his obsequious attitudes to Lady Catherine de Burgh. She is played with grand hauteur by Judi Dench.
A more down-to-earth and realistic interpretation of Jane Austen's world.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communications and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.