‘Pride & Prejudice’: The Way They Were, By Kurt Loder

Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen bring Jane Austen's squabbling lovers to life once again.

“Pride & Prejudice”: The Way They Were

Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” has had a lively afterlife in latter-day movies and on television. The not-bad 1940 film version, which starred Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, has been superseded in many people’s minds by the 1995 BBC TV rendition (it later aired here on A&E), which featured Jennifer Ehle as the restlessly marriageable Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as the persnickety Mr. Darcy, the object of her conflicted emotions. One scene in that five-hour series — of Darcy emerging all wet and sexy from a lake — pretty much made Firth an international star.

It certainly won the fictional heart — or at least the fictional loins — of the heroine of the 1996 best-seller, “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” by Helen Fielding, who admitted that she nicked the plot for her book from the Austen classic. Naturally, she updated it for the age of snog-prone singles, and so we have Bridget, in one diary entry, referring to the Darcy and Elizabeth of the TV series as “my chosen representatives in the field of shagging, or, rather, courtship.”

Like Elizabeth, Bridget has a mother who’s trying to marry her off against her will — in Bridget’s case, to a stiff, stand-offish lawyer named … Mark Darcy. She doesn’t like this Darcy — he’s certainly no Colin Firth — and in recounting a conversation with one of her girlfriends, she says, “we had a long discussion about the comparative merits of Mr. Darcy and Mark Darcy, both agreeing that Mr. Darcy was more attractive because he was ruder, but that being imaginary was a disadvantage that could not be overlooked.” Naturally, when “Bridget Jones’s Diary” was made into a movie in 2001, the actor chosen to play Mark Darcy actually was Colin Firth.

All of which is to say that “Pride and Prejudice” still appears to speak to something ageless in our emotional makeup, if not our social arrangements. The book comes down to us from a time when girls were thought to be not worth schooling and fit only for marriage and motherhood, with husbands to be chosen by their parents. And yet, the volatile trajectory of the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, beginning in mutual dislike but blossoming into dewy-eyed, how-could-I-have-been-so-blind romance, is of course not unknown in our own day.

Thus the worthiness of the latest version of “Pride and Prejudice,” a movie starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and the English actor Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy. The director, English television veteran Joe Wright, has set the story more firmly in its time than was the case in the somewhat anachronistic 1940 film, and he’s shot it in a naturalistic, down-among-the-ducks-and-chickens style that leaves in all the backyard muck and the 300-pound pigs waddling about in the hallways of country houses. This is not a period piece in any sense that a 1940s set decorator would recognize.

Elizabeth Bennet is once again the second-oldest of five daughters in a good family that doesn’t have all that much money, and which must therefore ensure that the girls get married off to gentlemen of substantial means, or otherwise face financial and social ruin. (At the time, female offspring were not allowed to inherit property.) When a London bachelor, Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), moves into a nearby mansion, in the occasional company of such impressive big-city friends as the fabulously wealthy Mr. Darcy, the Bennet girls’ mother (played by Brenda Blethyn) goes into matchmaking overdrive. Their father, meanwhile (played by Donald Sutherland with the exhausted amiability of a man who has clearly spent too many years in a house full of clamoring women), does his best to pay as little attention as possible to the proceedings, unless disaster of one sort or another clearly impends.

The story, although necessarily winnowed down from the novel, remains one of cleverly interwoven motives and giddy feminine calculations. Will the oldest of the Bennet girls, Jane (Rosamund Pike), land the attentive Mr. Bingley? Why does Mr. Darcy seem opposed to this? And why does he so dislike another sister’s suitor, Mr. Wickham — who in any case makes Darcy out to be a complete cad? Can Elizabeth escape the attentions of the fusty, lovelorn clergyman, Mr. Collins? And if she does, why should she give a toss about this Darcy character? And, most vexing question of all, why does she give a toss nevertheless?

The plot unfolds with automaton inevitability — there are a few surprises (for those unfamiliar with the book or the earlier films), but the ending is never in doubt.

So why should non-English majors have any interest in this sort of antique romance? Well, for one thing, because it actually is romantic, in a way that’s kind of charming in its absence of contemporary wisecracking worldliness. And because Keira Knightley, with her scrooched-up, toothy smile, and Matthew MacFadyen, with his pained good looks and endearing emotional constipation, make a pretty smashing couple, especially in full swoon out on the wind-blown heath. Also because, in the British manner, the secondary roles are played by actors of unusual accomplishment; and because the production is saved from sogginess by the astringent presence of Judi Dench, as the horrific matriarch, Lady Catherine de Bourg, and the increasingly ubiquitous Kelly Reilly as Mr. Bingley’s irrepressibly snotty sister, Caroline.

Also because, if I need mention, it’s a pretty great date movie.

—Kurt Loder

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