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Screens More Brontë than Austen 

A man with a good fortune seeks romantic strife in the latest Pride and Prejudice

“I wish I could read more, but there always seem so many other things to do,” complains the giddiest of the five Bennet sisters, in 1797, before TV, CDs, and the internet offered further diversions. Two centuries later, it is not necessary to read in order to experience some of the artistry of Jane Austen’s fiction. Like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Mary Shelley, she has become a prolific posthumous writer for the movies. Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility have each been cinematized at least once; and Clueless transposes the latter to a group of California teenagers. A hip-hop Sanditon must surely be in pre-production. A Bollywood Austen, Bride and Prejudice, was released less than a year ago, adding to more than a half-dozen versions of the Austen book that is most often assigned to reluctant adolescent readers.

Keira Knightley plays the shrewdest of the five eminently marriageable Bennet sisters in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Jane Austen favorite, Pride and Prejudice.

Now, a decade after the BBC’s superb dramatization of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and two years after an Americanization set at Brigham Young University, comes a new adaptation, by screenwriter Deborah Moggach, an English author best known for Tulip Fever, a novel set in 17th-century Amsterdam.

Beginning with a traveling shot through the slovenly rural household of the Bennets, downwardly mobile shabby English gentry, director Joe Wright offers a vivid evocation of place. His sense of time is not as assured; the lush strings scored over misty moors suggest Brontë more than Austen, 19th-century romanticism more than late 18th-century sensibility. Matthew MacFadyen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy sometimes seems a bit too much like Heathcliff.

The Bennet digs stand in dramatic contrast to the palatial estates inhabited by the aristocratic Lady Catherine de Bourg (Dench) and her nephew Darcy. When, accompanying his friend Bingley (Woods), Darcy strays into the Bennet neighborhood, he is slumming. At the first of several merry balls that gauge the state of relationships, Darcy stands aloof, declining to dance. It is easy to draw the initial conclusion (Austen originally called her novel First Impressions) that Darcy is an insufferable snob. That is exactly the prejudice that Elizabeth (Knightley), the second-oldest and the shrewdest of the five Bennet sisters, conceives about Darcy, and it will take the entire film and several twists to the plot before she can swallow her pride and stomach his marriage proposal.

Pride and Prejudice

Dir. Joe Wright; writ. Deborah Moggach, based on the novel by Jane Austen; feat. Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn, Judi Dench, Simon Woods (PG-13)

Beginning with its mischievous opening line, Austen’s novel is of course a comedy of matrimony, in a society in which marriage proclaims power, and, unless one is wily, power belongs to wealth, blood, and Y chromosomes. Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet is a sweet but feckless codger beset by a covey of women, including a ditzy wife whose sole ambition is to secure an eligible bachelor for each of her five daughters. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” proclaims the novel’s droll narrator, who is absent from the film. Despite all the other things that the culture provides for us to do, those who seek wit rather than mere merriment will simply have to read. However, Pride and Prejudice the Movie offers the considerable satisfaction of watching high spirits triumph over low motives.

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