Who doesn’t love a good period drama? Certainly, the epitome of period drama has to come from Jane Austen adaptation – there have been many, and whether they are good or bad, they are still selfishly enjoyable and a lot of fun to watch. They’re not too serious, and luckily they are usually very well-made. The appeal comes in the fact that they are both a departure from contemporary society, so they are still a form of escapism, but they are still rooted firmly in realism, and the topics that Austen spoke about two centuries ago are more than relevant to today’s society. Earlier this year, I watched and reviewed the delightful Love & Friendship, based on Austen’s Lady Susan. That was far more of a comedy than anything else, and venturing into her slightly more serious works was an interesting challenge (yet, I wouldn’t dare call Pride and Prejudice that serious – I found myself laughing at the insatiable wit that Austen placed within her characters). There have been various adaptations of this novel, and while I still intend on watching the six-hour BBC production, I rather chose to start with the 2005 adaptation, arguably the most accessible (and in some circles, the most faithful) adaptation of the iconic novel.
I shall not waste time by explaining the plot – I am pretty sure everyone who has any intention of seeing this film knows the plot, or has some vague idea of what the story is. It is always tricky to review works that are so well-known, especially those that are adapted from novels – it can very soon turn into a discussion of the novel itself, which I will not do, because let’s face it – to review a novel that is over two-hundred years old is slightly redundant. There is absolutely nothing I can add to the discussion or perception of the novel, and I am never surprised to see, when analysing a classic piece of work, regardless of how ingenious and unique I feel my opinion is, I find a dozen people saying the exact same thing. I would much rather just review Pride and Prejudice as a film on its own merits – I try and avoid comparing it to the book, because while the book is a legendary masterpiece that was otherworldly, the film of Pride and Prejudice was simply amusing, and while I did enjoy it, it was nothing close to the book. Yet, it stands on its own merit, which is what I will be discussing here.
The first aspect that drew me to this film was the cast. Now there is a popular belief that an actor is only truly an actor once they have performed Shakespeare, and this is certainly true – the roles of Shakespeare are complex and a challenge for even the most talented actors, and thus if they are able to pull it off, they truly are meant to be in the profession, as the complexity of the characters and the volume of the dialogue is astounding and a monumental task. However, I do think there are various other authors that demand a lot from those in adaptations, and one of them is Jane Austen. Her characters are equally as complex, and the dialogue itself is also challenging – but there is even more to her characters – a strange wit that differentiates them from other characters, and an actor needs to find the balance between being witty and being outright funny, which is a delicate balance. Of course, Shakespeare wrote plays, and thus actors are supposed to play these roles – whereas Austen wrote novels, which meant that adaptations are not necessary – yet, they are popular enough that they have spawned into their own kind of sub-genre. Now considering this, director Joe Wright managed to persuade several highly esteemed actors to appear in this film, along with some newcomers that would go on to become huge stars in their own right. As this film depends almost entirely on the characters and the performances, it is imperative that the main focus of the film (and this review) should be on those actors and their characterization of their characters.
First off, Keira Knightley is an absolutely brilliant actress – she has a rare kind of likability that one doesn’t see often in leading ladies, and I feel like her ability to be both graceful and feisty (and her own natural wit) makes her a natural fit for the role of Elizabeth Bennet, one of the most extraordinary characters in all of literature. She managed to show Elizabeth as a prejudiced, judgmental and sometimes very harsh character, yet never an unlikable one. It was important that Knightley found the balance, because if she leaned too heavily on the romantic aspect, she would’ve appeared too much like a lovesick nymph, and if she depended too heavily on the character’s more unfavourable qualities, she would’ve come off far too nasty. While the Pirates of the Caribbean films made Knightley a star and a household name, Pride and Prejudice proved that she was an extraordinary performer, and I am glad that she has found a space in these kinds of period dramas, where she is able to play off her natural charms that seem more suited to a period gone past. Her co-lead in this film is Matthew MacFayden, who unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity this film presented to others to become a bigger household name. MacFayden does well in playing Mr. Darcy as the brutish, proud and vain curmudgeon in the first half, and then as the charming and friendly romantic in the second half. The chemistry between the two leads was electric, and they were a joy to watch.
The supporting cast was extraordinary – and it is difficult to pick out just one standout – but the likes of Donald Sutherland (as the sarcastic Mr. Bennet) and Brenda Blethyn (as his overly anxious and flustered wife, desperate to marry her daughters off) are hilarious and highlights of the film. Rosamund Pike plays Jane with grace and nuance, and her kind-hearted nature contrasts Elizabeth’s rather rough personality. It is a shame that Pike had to wait nearly a decade to get better work (with her iconic performance in Gone Girl), but I am glad she is being noticed, because she is an extraordinary talent. Tom Hollander is a great character actor and I am always delighted to see him appear in a film, and Pride and Prejudice is not any different – he played the persnickety Mr. Collins perfectly. Of course, Judi Dench is also in this film in a smaller role than usual, and as usual, she is excellent (she could read the newspaper on film and still be amazing). The entire cast is very strong, and its one of the more solid ensembles of recent years, and I struggled to find a weak link in the cast (but if I had to choose, it would be Jena Malone, who over-acts far too much here).
Other than the performances, Pride and Prejudice is also one of the most strikingly beautiful films of its kind, in terms of visuals. Many Jane Austen adaptations (and similar films) take place inside, in stuffy ballrooms and drawing rooms – and Wright changed that by setting a lot of the action in various locations, each one more beautiful than the next. Changing the locations allows for a far richer experience, and together with the utterly heartbreaking score (one of the best I’ve ever heard), Pride and Prejudice is just beautiful. However, not only is it visually arresting in terms of location, the production and costume design are absolutely amazing as well. There is a tendency for these kinds of films to show the characters as being almost perfect, with perfect clothes and tidy hair, and their homes to be preserved like museums. Wright clearly put a lot of effort into showing that these were human people, and thus many characters walk around with untidy clothes, unkempt hair and live on farms. This is a realistic depiction of life in Jane Austen’s time, and it is far more beautiful and stunning than any of the stuffy representations of a “perfect” society are.
I really adored this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It was faithful to the book and very well-made. The performances were wonderful, and the film just looked stunning. There was very little to fault here, and while some improvements could have been made (a consistent tone would’ve been beneficial), it was still a great film and I loved it. I am sure anyone who has the intention of seeing this film has already seen it, but implore those that don’t even normally like this kind of thing to search it out, because it is far from being the “chick-flick” (oh, how I despise that term) many people believe it to be. Its a great film. It is definitely worth it, and you may like it. Also, read the book. It is beyond a masterpiece.