by Ed Symkus & r & Pride and Prejudice & r & There's a great scene in the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers, in which Tchaikovsky's boss at a music conservatory disdainfully tells Pyotr that his newest composition is "women's stuff." That's exactly what I've thought in the past about Jane Austen's novels, none of which -- truth be told -- I've actually read. But I have seen two celebrated film versions of her Pride and Prejudice -- the well-acted if rather stuffy Laurence Olivier-Greer Garson version, and the oh-so-long mini-series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
Yet with the newest, starring the constantly surprising Keira Knightley (check her out in Domino and you'll know what I mean) and the relatively unknown Matthew MacFadyen, as the perky Elizabeth Bennet and the complex Mr. Darcy, my eyes have been opened -- quite wide.
The story concerns the possibly once well-to-do Bennet family -- Mom (Brenda Blethyn, entertainingly annoying), Dad (Donald Sutherland at his best) and their five unmarried daughters. These days, money is a problem in the rambling but ramshackle home, and hopes are high that the gals will marry men of wealth. So news that insanely wealthy -- and oddly hippie-like -- Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) will be attending the local ball causes everyone's hearts to skip a beat or two. That Bingley is bringing along his friend, the scowling Darcy, is a surprise that will cause many emotional ups and downs.
The age-old question that's been around since the publication of the book is why, besides good looks, would any woman be interested in such a charmless fellow as Darcy. But plucky Elizabeth might be, even though they're both overshadowed by her gold-digging mom's attempts to hook up older daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike), whom she calls "the best catch in the country," with Bingley.
This is just the start of a series of amusing situations among the wealthy and not-so-wealthy, and how the twain will at least have a great deal of difficulty meeting. There are also some semi-serious plot turns thrown in, but the story is more romantic comedy than anything else. Then again, it's hard to figure what type of mood is being put across with the introduction of the stern and humorless Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), a little weasel of a man who thinks his money can get him any woman of his choosing.
Under the direction of Joe Wright, who mostly works in British television, and the eyes of cinematographer Roman Osin, the film is absolutely loaded with beautiful images, especially when the characters are set in the lush countryside. Even indoors, the candlelit dinner scenes (with the tallest flames in cinema history) are gorgeous.
But this is really all about the emotional tug of war between Elizabeth and Darcy. Both actors do more than simply pull their own weight. Knightley tosses subtle but wickedly funny barbs at MacFadyen; he tries, initially in vain, to have a simple chat with her. To enjoy all of this, viewers must be prepared to accept major coincidences in the plot, and identify with Austen's ideas of happiness and misery and longing for love. Happily, I did both. Hell, now I might even read the book.