Curmudgeons are so rarely appreciated that it is with a bit of relief that we might regard the latest incarnation of the ever-so-curmudgeonly Mr. Darcy in the umpteenth adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. A sarcastic pill with a stick up his butt, Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) has plenty of pride, although it is perhaps just a cover for his cripplingly antisocial shyness. He more than meets his match in Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), which is, of course, the whole point of Pride & Prejudice -- meeting one's match. Lizzy's as quick with a sharp quip as Darcy, and almost as disinclined to play the match game, although, as a young woman in 18th century England, unable to inherit a penny from her father's estate, she has little choice.
The Bennet family is in a constant tizzy. With five marriageable daughters and no sons, the family's home will pass into the hands of an unpleasant male cousin, Reverend Collins (Tom Hollander), a boring, diminutive parson, and a man of undeserved self-importance, who comes to call at the Bennet home, trolling for a wife. He sets his sights on Lizzy, to the delight of Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn), a woman so desperate to marry off her girls she seems to think of little else. The first line of Austen's book is: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." That notion, that marriage is a business, a pecuniary matter of mergers and acquisitions, is ever on the mind of Mrs. Bennet. That she loves her daughters there can be little doubt, but it is her business to see them all form advantageous alliances, i.e., to marry money. Mr. Bennet (an amused and amusing Donald Sutherland) is a loving and patient husband and father, but he doesn't share his wife's mercenary enthusiasm for business.
Neither does Lizzy, who finds herself unaccountably attracted to the surly Darcy, not knowing that he is similarly smitten with her. Neither cares about money (he doesn't have to, having plenty of it), or the business of marriage, and neither seems to care for the other, which is, of course, the story's greatest source of tension and delight. When two smart, gorgeous people, born to be together, refuse to fall in love, it's almost unbearable, like watching a bomb being defused -- there will either be an explosion or there won't, a kiss or none at all, but oh, the snipping of all those crossed wires!
The plot, of course, creates plenty of crossed wires, and gives Lizzy ample reason to dislike Darcy: he's filthy rich, there are abundant rumors of caddish behavior, and he interferes in the romance between Lizzy's sister Jane (Rosamund Pike) and eligible, wealthy and willing bachelor Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). But if circumstance keeps dousing the flames of love, it keeps fanning them at the same time, putting Darcy and Lizzy in frequent, and frequently uncomfortable proximity.
Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach work a remarkable amount of Austen's book into the movie, and keep the prejudicial misunderstandings coming quickly enough to hold would-be romance convincingly at bay. The dialogue, much of it taken straight from Austen, is crisp, snappy, and deliciously witty. Knightley and Macfadyen play Lizzy and Darcy like a Tracy-Hepburn pair -- the verbal sparring is smart, fast, and sassy, with a delectable undercurrent of erotic tension. They're equals, in fact and in each other's eyes, even if their social positions could hardly be more unequal. Knightley's performance is fierce, vivid and smart. Macfadyen must face comparison to what is widely viewed as the gold standard of modern Darcys -- Colin Firth's portrayal in the BBC miniseries. He's more than up to the challenge, with a splendid Darcy who is openly churlish, but secretly a dewy-eyed romantic.
The movie makes the most of the nuanced social criticism and proto-feminism in Austen's work, turning Lizzy's stubborn quest for love and romance, pursued in spite of her sex's utter financial dependence on men, into an almost quixotically heroic undertaking. In her stalwart refusal to settle for a merely convenient union, she strikes a blow for love and self-respect. Lizzy's sisters are another matter. The demure Jane aside, they are a giggling, silly pack, constantly on the prowl for handsome men in uniform. Impish troublemaker Lydia is the sister most likely to bring scandal upon the family, and Jena Malone plays her as a giddy, callow teen, largely oblivious to the social forces at work in her world.
Pride & Prejudice is filled with the usual buzzing dances, elegant drawing rooms, and period costumes, but the settings are as lively and vivid as the sparkling cast. The Bennet home is as shabby as it is warm, and any girl who dares to venture outside (as Lizzy is wont to do) will generally come back with a fair amount of mud on the hem of her dress. The movie breathes life into the period, which is a great relief after so many stuffy, airless, high-minded literary adaptations. Pride & Prejudice is as action-packed as any romantic comedy, and every scene is filled to the brim with meaningful conversation, manners, pomp and circumstance. The director, and cinematographer Roman Osin keep the camera moving, swirling around the characters, creating the sense that country life in the social season is as lively as any city club scene. Everyone is on the prowl, whether they mean to be or not. Georgian England is depicted as a veritable meet market where hearts and minds are equally engaged, although whether the heart should follow the mind, or the mind should follow the heart is really the heart of the matter. Pride & Prejudice, a smart movie that makes the heart leap and skip, is a vote for the latter.