There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.
In terms of being a particular departure for the genre, I shan’t mount any great defence of this 2005 adaptation, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as the prideful and prejudicial protagonists. If you are convinced that the heritage film privileges a conservative, prettified and cleaned-up view of history-as-nostalgia more apt to be commodified as home design or fashion choices, then you won’t be changing your mind with this film. There are some gorgeous views of the English countryside, of the Bennets’ gently dilapidated home, and of the grand estates to which several of the Bennets aspire, and very little historical or political context. The choice to move the setting from the early-19th century of the novel to the late-18th century seems motivated more by a desire to incorporate different frocks and thus differentiate the enterprise from the more famous television adaption of ten years earlier (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).
All those caveats aside, this is an excellent production of the Austen novel, well-mounted and acted, beautifully-filmed, and which is generous with the characters (as generous as it could be, given it’s not a six-hour TV mini-series). There is some particularly nice early flair with the camera, featuring long sinuous tracking shots, and a stand-out sequence during a dance which moves in one take through several rooms and catches little vignettes and dialogue from various of the characters.
Sadly, this inventiveness with the mise en scène largely cedes to more classical filmmaking as the drama progresses, but luckily the acting holds its own. I’ve not always been fond of angular, toothsome Keira Knightley in the past, but as the winsome (and, yes, wilful) Elizabeth Bennet she does rather well with what is very much the central role. Macfadyen gloms moodily around the edges, displaying the required want of sociability rather than mere haughty imperiousness — that quality is left to his best friend’s sister, played perfectly by Kelly Reilly. The rest of the Bennet family are by turns shrill (Brenda Blethyn’s mother), giggly (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone as Kitty and Lydia) and moody (the stand-out Mary, played by Talulah Riley). Their boisterousness is rather distracting from the precarious background to the story’s predicament — that if the daughters are not married, the family will become destitute — something that only Donald Sutherland’s father and Rosamund Pike as eldest sister Jane seem to carry. As the man to whom the family fortune will fall, Tom Hollander is a comedic highlight as the desperately unctuous Mr Collins.
It may not be cinematic cutting edge, but it’s the kind of straightforward, nicely-made and well-acted confection that makes for comforting viewing. There’s at least something to that, so I’m happy to allow this as a worthwhile addition to an already oversubscribed genre.
Director Joe Wright; Writer Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Roman Osin; Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.