In her early novel Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen makes it clear that Elizabeth Bennet has little respect for her friend Charlotte's pragmatic view of marriage. And though Elizabeth loves her older sister, Jane, she can't exactly endorse her lovesick moping either. With practicality and sentiment out of the picture, what can possibly make Elizabeth fall for the proud Mr. Darcy?
Austen is decorously evasive on this question, and so the filmmakers responsible for this grimy and immensely enjoyable new adaptation have some wiggle room. According to director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy aren't so much in love as they are erotically enthralled. Their famous clash of wits isn't the cause of their affection; it's sublimation at its most sublime. In other words, forget stuffy: This Pride & Prejudice is totally hot.
Elizabeth (Keira Knightley, brilliant) is the clever second daughter of five girls living in the English countryside at the end of the 18th century. (Earlier adaptations, including the enormously popular BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, had moved the action forward to the date of the book's publication or even later, presumably for sartorial reasons.) Her father, Mr. Bennet, is a landowner and therefore a gentleman, but he has no son to inherit his estate, and so upon his death, his property will be entailed on an unknown cousin. Austen's setup combines protofeminist protest with elitist horror. The Bennet daughters (the youngest is 15, the oldest 23) are dangling on the edge of poverty—unless they take advantage of their temporary social status and marry up. Enter the Mssrs. Bingley (Simon Woods) and Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) and their thousands of pounds per year.
In its frank reminders of the family's economic situation, this Pride & Prejudice appears dedicated to realism. The Bennet residence nestles against a literal pigsty. Mud spatters the hems of the girls' dresses, and at one point a fat boar ambles into the house. Elizabeth and Jane sleep in the same bed, and their relationship is correspondingly close and conspiratorial. And the younger girls' complexions are noticeably ruddy (Wright told me in an interview that the only actor allowed any makeup was Knightley).
But the household mise-en-scène pushes up against romantic details that are anything but gritty. There are dramatic zooms and a sexy ballroom scene in which the surrounding characters disappear from the frame. When Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle visit Darcy's estate, they find a sensual Grecian sculpture garden, not a stuffy portrait hall. Darcy and Elizabeth meet on a misty lavender fen, and they interact—but never kiss—with touches as grazing as their glances are lingering. Knightley and MacFadyen have excellent chemistry, and they make us believe even the cheesiest camerawork.
Wright cast actors very close to the characters' ages, and it's clear that the Bennet girls are giggly and screechy not just because they were indifferently educated, but also because they are young. Jena Malone gets little screen time as the wild youngest sister Lydia, but she quickly makes us furious with her impetuous ignorance. In just a few lines, Talulah Riley perfectly telegraphs Mary's sententious pomp. Knightley might be a little too pretty for most people's idea of Elizabeth, but her slight underbite and skinny frame make Mr. Darcy's initial preference for Jane's fair looks over hers at least plausible. The rest of the cast is full of flexible new readings of Austen's characters: Woods makes an adorably daft Bingley, and the hilarious Tom Hollander plays Mr. Collins as, in Wright's words, "a weird fucked-up little freak of a pervert." As the girls' airhead mother, Brenda Blethyn gives us a Mrs. Bennet with an almost sympathetic subtext. And then there's MacFadyen as Darcy.
Fans of the BBC adaptation will always be fierce adherents to Firth's mid-'90s Darcy, with his totally unreadable, Austen-approved countenance. But Firth's stoic masculinity was also reactionary: an explicit rejection of the sensitive New Age guy. MacFadyen is in the difficult position of compensating for that choice. From the very start, his soft eyes betray his eventual sweet capitulation. It's not exactly Austen. But it's sexy. And it works.
WEB SPECIAL: Click here for Annie Wagner's full interview with Joe Wright, a bloke who's not afraid to admit he sometimes weeps into his lager.