Pride, prejudice and preconceptions

For the last eight years, despite — or perhaps because of — my extended love affair with Jane Austen, I have avoided the 2005 Hollywood film Pride & Prejudice.

In that time I have read the book several more times (it gets better with each reading), created various interactive multimedia projects around the text, purchased “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” as a birthday gift for an old friend, given quite a few public research talks which prominently mention the classic novel, revisited the 1995 miniseries, and watched the BBC spoof “Lost in Austen” with gleeful abandon. Twice.

Yet I stayed away from the post-millennial film version, mainly out of a deep and abiding distrust of Hollywood’s ability to do justice to the subtlety of Austen’s work, and a fear that commercial imperatives would dull the razor sharp edges of her masterpiece.

Furthermore, I thought Kiera Knightley to be far to obviously beautiful to play Elizabeth Bennet. I may also have been put off by that pesky ampersand in the title.

I am happy to report that I was wrong. Knightley rises to the occasion splendidly. Also, Donald Sutherland is perfectly pitched as Mr. Bennet, and Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet is a hoot.

It is true that Matthew Macfadyen, in his role as Mr. Darcy, is distressingly wooden (although always very pretty), Rupert Friend doesn’t have the charm required for Mr. Wickham, and Tom Hollander, although quite good, isn’t nearly funny enough as the dread Mr. Collins.

But with Judi Dench playing Lady Catherine, it’s hard to quibble. This lady can do anything (she once played a fabulous Sally Bowles on the London stage). And it’s fun to see a pre-discovered Carey Mulligan (don’t blink).

In the end, it all comes down to the character of Lizzie. And Ms. Knightley acquits herself extremely well, transmuting the inner fire and steel of Elizabeth Bennet into pure Hollywood charisma.

To be clear, this isn’t the book. In fact it differs from the book in fundamental ways, and this is not the Regency England that Austen knew and wrote about. I suspect she would have been confounded by the sight of lovers meeting alone half dressed and gentlemen wandering into ladies’ bedrooms. And that ampersand in the title is very descriptive, given that many key elements of the novel have simply been dropped.

Yet on its own abbreviated and modernist terms, P&P is a very enjoyable film. But to finally see it, I needed to overcome my own pride and prejudice.

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