Pride & Prejudice (review)

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Regency Rave

This is what, the 18,562,012th film version of Jane Austen? How many times can Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy misunderstand each other and yearn and burn and fail to see past their own snobbery and stubbornness until they finally do? Oh my god, do we really need another Pride & Prejudice?

But hot damn, we do, we really do need this new Pride & Prejudice: it’s beautiful and luminous and sexy and rambunctious and suspenseful and passionate and visceral… Oh, it’s downright exhausting just thinking about how wonderful and even necessary this movie is. Yeah, necessary, a desperately essential reminder — amid even all the really great and amazing movies about stuff blowing up and crime and corruption and noses getting driven up into cerebral cortexes and people getting vaporized by alien tripods and all — that this is what life is all about, or should be: the mysteries of attraction and the adventure of falling in love and the bittersweetness of learning about yourself as you do.

This movie is so alive you want to cry, and the feeling hits you right away and never leaves: at the dance at the beginning of the film, where everyone has an earthy, natural, real face and the guys are grinning their heads off and the girls’ only makeup is the glow of exertion as they dance, dance, dance. No stuffy drawing-room drama, this: this is a Regency rave, the whole damn film, not just the dance scene, and you want to get up and dance with them, with the shabby-genteel Bennet girls Elizabeth (Keira Knightley: Domino, The Jacket) and Jane (Rosamund Pike: Doom, Die Another Day), with the delightfully goofy-sweet Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods)… though perhaps not with his steely-eyed snoot of a sister, Caroline (Kelly Reilly), nor with his friend, Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen: The Reckoning, MI-5), as standoffish and aloof as a man can be without actually have a stick up his nether regions.

And you know — you know — of course how the whole affair will end, that Jane and Bingley’s perfection for and attraction to each other, obvious from the moment they meet, will survive all the bumps along the way to the altar, and that the electric sparks that fly off Lizzie and Darcy that they mistake for antagonism and disdain will at last be recognized for the explosive sexual chemistry that it is. But this movie version is like Austen’s novel in that every time you read it, it’s so gripping and so expert a portrait of insecurity and uncertainty and denial that it seems possible that this time around, Lizzie and Darcy will not, in fact, end up together. And so there’s tremendous apprehension and doubt woven into this magnificent movie, and some of that is down to director Joe Wright, who makes you ache along with Lizzie and Darcy (and Jane and Bingley) with languid shots of misty morning fields and long visual sighs of despair — like Lizzie’s dress flying around the flapping geese in the yard as she flees the dreadful proposal of marriage from her cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander: Stage Beauty, Possession).

The cast is fantastic, and fills the movie with unforgettable moments of humor and pathos: Hollander’s timid preacher cowering like a puppy about to pee on the floor before the iceberg of Judi Dench’s (Ladies in Lavender, The Chronicles of Riddick) Lady Catherine, Darcy’s aunt; Donald Sutherland’s (Lord of War, The Italian Job) Mr. Bennet, in quiet agony at the prospect of losing his Lizzie; Brenda Blethyn (Beyond the Sea) as Mrs. Bennet, so eager to see her girls married that she inadvertently almost scuttles their attempts to do so; Rupert Friend’s Wickham, so charming and debonair that you’ll steadfastly refuse to admit that you know what a villain he’ll turn out to be.

But as it must be, the success of this Pride rests with Knightley and MacFadyen, who are the Lizziest and the Darciest Lizzie and Darcy ever, and who’d have thought anyone could say that after Colin Firth’s previously Darciest performance in the 1995 British TV miniseries? Sure, they smolder, together and separately onscreen, but it’s not the posing kind of smoldering that beautiful people in the movies is usually about — they not only become Lizzie and Darcy, they allow us to become them, too, allow us to hurt and hope as if we were there in those misty morning fields too.

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