I will not deny the fact that I was not enthused about seeing this umpteenth run-through the Jane Austen classic. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a big fan of British costume dramas, and my dislike of “tomboy beanpole” Keira Knightley has long been established. When I read somewhere that Darren Aronofsky said that you couldn’t pay him to see “Pride & Prejudice”, I nodded in agreement. Still, despite all that, I improbably ended up watching the damn thing… and I didn’t hate it.
As you probably know, the story deals with how the five daughters of the Bennett family deal with the pressure of finding a husband, preferably a rich one. Elizabeth (Knightley) is reluctant to take part in such a superficial pursuit… until dashing and wealthy Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) moves into the neighborhood.
I’ve never quite understood what the deal was with Jane Austen. Everyone goes on about how modern her novels were, presenting strong-willed female protagonists that stand as feminists before their time, but I don’t quite see it. Elizabeth might start out independent and cynical, but before long she conforms to the chick flick clichés of the girl who thinks she’s above love only because she hasn’t found it yet and that old saw on how Sometimes the Last Person on Earth You Want to Be With Is the One Person You Can’t Be Without.
I’m kind of a sucker for romantic comedies so I can handle characters initially hating each other then inevitably falling in love, but they’re pushing my limits here. As played by MacFadyen, Mr. Darcy comes off like a giant douche, dissing Elizabeth right off the bat by saying she’s “tolerable, I dare say, but not handsome enough to tempt me”. What a conceited prick! Granted, Knightley is indeed rather plain, but if we’re to go with the fantasy that this is true love, he at least should find her to his liking. Oh, he eventually professes overwhelming feelings to her, but it doesn’t feel earned. Likewise, I could never understand what drew Elizabeth to him. Even if you ignore the big “offenses” that serve as obstacles in the plot so their potential happiness is postponed until late in the film, Mr. Darcy simply fails to display much charisma. Does he even crack a smile in the first two acts?
Well now, I’m piling up the criticisms pretty thick for a film that I don’t hate, aren’t I? What keeps “Pride & Prejudice”, um, tolerable is how exquisitely crafted it is. I wasn’t moved by the romance, but the lush art direction, pretty music and gorgeous cinematography did get to me. There are some visually breathtaking scenes in which the camera endlessly sweeps through gardens and ballrooms, maintaining a dreamy storybook feel despite the absence of chemistry between the leads. And while I’m still not sold on Knightley, the cast surrounding her is rather pleasant, especially Jena Malone as her horny younger sister Lydia, Donald Sutherland as her wise, caring father and Brenda Blethyn as her bubbly, scheming mother.
It may appear that I’m damning “Pride & Prejudice” with faint praise, but moviegoers more in tune with the Jane Austen mentality or more endeared with Keira Knightley’s prominent collarbones can upgrade my marginal thumbs down to a modest recommendation.