Now Showing: Pride and Prejudice

The latest movie version of Pride and Prejudice, by director Joe Wright, is better than I expected. It's most distinguished feature is its casting, and the subsequent acting that went with it. Rosamund Pike is, by far, the best Jane Bennet I have seen on film. Brenda Blethen is very credible as Mrs. Bennet, in a role that has often been caricatured. Even the minor roles were treated with respect. Tamzin Merchant as Mr. Darcy's sister, for example, is delightful.

In the major roles of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen perform well. Ms. Knightley is a bit too giggly to capture Elizabeth perfectly. But one has to remember that portraying the finest woman in fiction is not easy. In thinking of the task, one is reminded of Nietzsche's comment that "The perfect woman is a higher type of humanity than the perfect man and also something much rarer." Perhaps there has never been and never will be an Elizabeth Bennet in what we so loosely call real life. That Jane Austen was able to imagine her is the crowning mark of her genius and that any actress, no matter how skilled, would be able to portray the full truth of the character is not to be expected. I will say, though, that Ms. Knightley was, physically, right for the role.

Mr. Darcy is not a perfect man and, therefore, not as hard to present as Elizabeth. But, he's not easy either. The peculiar combination of being, in essence, a perfect gentleman, but wearing a mask of haughty arrogance presents formidable problems to an actor, and MacFayden handled them as well as I've seen.

The weakness of the film was the screenplay. Virtually every choice to diverge from the novel, and particularly from the dialogue of the novel, was a mistake. The worst example was the climactic confrontation of Elizabeth and Lady Catherine. In the novel, it took place in the afternoon, in the Bennets' garden, and the back and forth between the two was extended and very sharp. The movie has Lady Catherine coming to Longbourn virtually in the middle of the night -- a thing she would never have done -- and having only a brief exchange in a dimly lighted room. And the most terrible excision -- I would say, virtually, an abomination -- was the decision not to portray the conversation between Jane and Elizabeth when the latter explains how she came to change her mind about Mr. Darcy. Jane asks, "Will you tell me how long you have loved him?" And her sister replies -- in the finest lines of the novel -- "It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley." If you don't know why that was a perfect answer, then you don't understand anything about Jane Austen.

I can see what Joe Wright was trying to do. Since it was a film, substitute the image for the word. He succeeds brilliantly with his settings. The ball where Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy first encounter the folk of Meryton is magnificently staged, depicting exactly the social difference between the newcomers and the provincial upper class. And the rollicking gaiety of the party is infectious and quite realistic. But, ultimately, Jane Austen is more about words than she is about scenery. I can't say that this is the greatest story ever told because I don't know all the stories. But it is, by far, the grandest story I've encountered and the reason is its language. So, I wish the language had received more attention than it did. Still, it's a good movie and well worth seeing.

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