I just watched the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice. It’s the one with Keira Knightley. When it comes to filmed versions, most people mention the 1995 BBC version with Colin Firth. And I agree that it is quite a good version. But although it is well done, it is still typical of such versions: too much talking and rather too faithful a rendering of the book. The 2005 film breaks with such conventions, telling Jane Austen’s story the way it ought to be told on the screen.
A good example of this comes near the end when Lydia comes home with her Mr. Wickham. In the book, this requires a whole conversation between Elizabeth and Wickham where she makes it clear to him that she knows who he really is. This is all unnecessary. It seems to be in the book so that Austen can show that Wickham is not only a libertine, but a moron as well. Can Wickham really be so stupid as to think that Elizabeth would still admire him given what he did to the Lydia and the family? What’s more, could he reasonably think that all his other lies have not been revealed? In the movie, anything that needs to be said in this regard is done with Wickham trying to catch Elizabeth’s eye, and her turning sharply away. That’s the kind of thing that film can do and this version does an excellent job of this again and again.
One down side of the film is that it underplays just how horrible Darcy’s family and friends are. It isn’t completely absent, of course. There is plenty of Caroline and most especially Lady Catherine. What’s more, the film does a good job of contrasting Catherine with Mrs. Bennet. Neither is in an objective sense worse; they are just horrible in different ways. The Bennets may be silly and uncouth, but they are not silly and snooty. The book clearly does a better job. In fact, so good a job that I often think that Jane Austen was not a very nice person: she thought pretty much everyone was horrible. (Not that I disagree.)
The producers of Pride & Prejudice have also worked very hard to make the characters more sympathetic. Mrs. Bennet is still a ridiculous character, but she’s portrayed as a woman who is trying to do her best in a bad situation. There is one scene at the end of the book where Mr. Bennet tells Jane, “You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.” To this, Mrs. Bennet replies, “Exceed their income! My dear Mr. Bennet, what are you talking of? Why, he has four or five thousand a-year, and very likely more.” It is played for pure comedy: the silly Mrs. Bennet. But in the movie, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are in bed and he tells her this referring to Jane. Mrs. Bennet replies as in the book, but it is said playfully and then he reaches to kiss her. I really like that because it shows why Mr. Bennet might have married Mrs. Bennet in the first place and it shows that they do not have an entirely dysfunctional relationship.
This version is also by far the best cast version of the book. I’m not a big fan of Keira Knightley, but she is wonderful as Elizabeth. I particularly like her easy laugh, and this goes right along with her character in the book. In one of her first conversations with Darcy, she says, “I dearly love a laugh.” And then they go on to discuss the difference between (for example) the silliness of her family and her intelligent wit. Knightley brings that off brilliantly. Similarly, Matthew Macfadyen is perfect as Mr. Darcy. In fact, he embodies the character so perfectly that I’m not sure how well their marriage will work out. There is no question but that he needs her more than she him.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Judi Dench as Lady Catherine is wonderfully horrible. Tom Hollander perfectly captures the servile yet self-important Mr. Collins. Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn add depth to the elder Bennets that isn’t even in the book. Rosamund Pike as Jane is two things that we almost never get from screen Janes. First, she’s gorgeous. This is often a problem because she isn’t the lead. But in her case, she is actually better looking than Knightley. Second, she isn’t just a quiet beauty. She has lots of depth and her intelligence comes across on the screen. I could go on about the rest of the cast. There isn’t a single bad performance in the whole film.
Perhaps most important of all, the film makes a lot of very good assumptions based upon the novel. The most important of these is how Elizabeth and Darcy have a connection from the start. He loves her despite all of the objections of her family. And she loves him despite the fact that intellectually she’s sure she should hate him. This continues throughout the film. The following is my favorite scene. I think it is the most romantic of things when Elizabeth says she is rather fond of walking and Darcy says, “Yes. Yes, I know.” And that dates back to when they had only just met. And he remembered. Also note how after she leaves, the camera dollies back to a close-up of his hand.
There is no doubt that the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice is not terribly accurate to the exact plotting of the book. But more than any other version, it brings the book to life as it was in my head. If you love the book, read it again. I think I have read Pride and Prejudice more than any other book. But if you want to watch it, this is the version to watch.