Photo by Alex BaileySniff all you like at the Bridget Jones franchise, Bride & Prejudice and all other past and future rip-offs of Jane Austens most dog-eared novel. Theyre all testaments to the enduring power of Pride and Prejudice as one of the most potently wishful fantasies in the female dream-book. Barring an end to the war between the sexes, well never see a shortfall in female demand for this particular high concept: Brainy girl pretty, but no bombshell meets filthy-rich, granite-jawed hunk reeking of unavailability, ignores him, sasses him, tames him, marries him. Pride and Prejudices Elizabeth Bennet is the most serviceable of role models, a feminist icon whos well able to take care of herself, but who also gets to live happily ever after with a moneyed honey straight out of a Harlequin romance. Which may be why, in years of literary dish with well-read friends, Ive yet to meet a woman who doesnt drool over her. So why, in no less than five miniseries and two official film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, have we yet to encounter a satisfying screen Lizzie? From the giddy 1940 movie featuring a disastrously miscast Greer Garson (opposite Laurence Olivier) to Andrew Davies bushy-tailed 1995 BBC crowd-pleaser (with a talented but too rosy and demure Jennifer Ehle opposite Colin Firth, who seemed to be constantly on the verge of cracking up), there hasnt been a single Elizabeth Bennet that has hit the spot. In part, thats because theyve all skewed too young. Though not yet one-and-twenty (an age when, in her rural corner of Regency England, unmarried damsels start rummaging through the governess want ads), Lizzie Bennet, unlike her flighty sisters, is wise, sophisticated and intellectual beyond her years. When I cast her in my head, actresses in their 30s or 40s keep popping up: ideally Emma Thompson or Juliet Stevenson; Emily Mortimer maybe; Madeleine Stowe at a pinch; even Julia Roberts, who has dry wit aplenty if only she got more opportunities to flaunt it. If youre going to go with youth, as director Joe Wright does in his new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (now retooled, God knows why, as Pride & Prejudice), the sublimely understated Zooey Deschanel springs to mind, or cocky, mouthy Reese Witherspoon. But Keira Knightley? Elizabeth Bennet is a watcher, not a doer, a subtle observer and coolly analytical commentator on the parochial society in which shes trapped. Shes nothing if not low-key, and not even the male critics who have rushed to anoint Knightley the next big thing would call this endearing colt subtle, cool or analytical. I havent seen Knightley in Domino, but she was a risibly ill-conceived, karate-chopping Guinevere in the very odd King Arthur and a charisma-free Lara in the British miniseries of Dr. Zhivago, though good, broad fun in Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean. But for all her creamy beauty and enthusiastic vitality, Knightley has yet to do anything Id call acting. Shes an open book who charges through every role with the same undiscriminating gusto. In Pride & Prejudice, Knightley plays Lizzie as, of all things, a head-tossing daddys girl given to giggling into her pillow with her impossibly sweet-tempered sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike), while coyly batting away Darcy, a shocking stiff colorlessly played by MI5s decorative Matthew Macfadyen, who renders this supposedly deep noble as a walleyed deer caught in the headlights of Lizzies puppyish exuberance. Fat chance of his Darcy ripping off his shirt and plunging into icy waters for love of a clever woman. But if Knightley and Macfadyen are in over their heads, theyre deliciously supported from below by ancillary players who, with the aid of novelist Deborah Moggachs capable screenplay, do a wicked job of articulating Austens skewering of Regency manners and morals: Donald Sutherland, a master of the dry aside, as the put-upon Mr. Bennet; Brenda Blethyn as his prattling bubblehead of a wife; a very funny Tom Hollander as the unctuous, social-climbing Mr. Collins, the distant relative whose only asset, courtesy of Englands archaic inheritance laws, is his power to evict the Bennets should the fancy take him; Kelly Reilly as the vixenish sister of Janes suitor, Mr. Bingley (played one notch above dimwit by Simon Wood in cockatoo hair); Talulah Riley as Lizzies spinster-in-training sister Mary, typhoid to all earthly pleasures; and Judi Dench, puffing away as Lady Catherine de Bourg, the toxic snob who tries to elbow Elizabeth off Darcys dance card. Like other contemporary Pride and Prejudice interpreters Gurinder Chadha (Bride & Prejudice), Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones Diary) and Beeban Kidron (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) Wright seizes on the novels potential for situation comedy. And hes quite good at it, as when the pintsize Mr. Collins all but knocks on Darcys broad back in a vain attempt to gain his attention at a social gathering; or when the over-excited Bennet sisters, having snagged their coveted invitation to take tea with the eligible Bingley, sink like a giant whoopee cushion into his groaning sofa. This is funny stuff, but it doesnt fit comfortably with Wrights bid for realist gravitas. Modeling his visual style on Roger Michells 1995 Persuasion, which may be the smartest adaptation of an Austen novel ever made, Wright has Elizabeth wandering through muddy fields in a frumpy brown frock that does nothing to diminish Knightleys radiance, while pigs and chickens roam freely around the Bennet residence to drive home the point that this is a family mired in genteel poverty. Then theres the weather, woodenly marking shifts in emotional temperature whenever Lizzies fortunes flag, down comes the rain, and we see her standing on the edge of a Peak District crag, gown flapping forlornly in a keen wind. But theres only one bracing moment in the movie when all this seriousness generates something approaching insight about the dark side of 18th-century English gentility, and thats when Mrs. Bennet, ribbed by Lizzie for obsessing over her daughters marriage prospects, fires back bravely with the reminder that if Lizzie had no money or rank and five female offspring to settle, shed be up nights worrying too.Wright is wrestling with a real flaw in Austens novel, which wears better as satire than as character study. Austen has been credited for upping the English womens novel from Gothic hysteria to a more complicated realism. So she did, but if its the function of the realist novel to create plausible characters, then expand and deepen our knowledge of them until we realize we dont know them at all and cant predict what theyll do next, neither Elizabeth nor Darcy can properly be called characters. By the end of the novel both get the edges beveled, however slightly, off their respective prides and prejudices but neither one of them really changes. Theyre constructs, the products of the two powerful yearnings that surely moved Austen to write this novel: on the one hand, to stand, through Darcy and Lizzie, outside the property relations that imprisoned her without 500 pounds and a room of her own; on the other, to convert an economic union into something new a love match. Elizabeth and Darcy may start out the very embodiment of the class and gender wars, but they end up its happy (and, not so incidentally, loaded) resolution. Even as I chortled at the virginal ending, in which the sun rises between two sets of puckered lips, I was tickled to see Lizzie having her feminist cake and eating it too. PRIDE & PREJUDICE | Directed by JOE WRIGHT | Written by DEBORAH MOGGACH | Based on the novel by JANE AUSTEN | Produced by TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER and PAUL WEBSTER | Released by Focus Features | Citywide
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