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AT THE MOVIES: Lovesick: Pride and Prejudice (***1/2)

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Fitzwilliam Darcy, or just plain Darcy, has it all, particularly when brought to life by the likes of men like Colin Firth, and now, Matthew MacFadyen in the latest adaptation of Austen’s masterwork. With his unrecognized charm, his sudden and uncontrollable passion, his moral core, his manners, to say nothing of his unimaginable riches, there is no better catch on the page. Leave it to a woman to write such a man. Nature couldn’t do it, so we had to.

That may be reason enough to bring Pride and Prejudice back to the big screen, even after the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth version on PBS. And it’s also why the first Bridget Jones was so good – you can’t screw up Darcy. Put him, or any permutation of him in a film and we women will fall all over ourselves to get a taste of his charm.

But more than even the easy mark of Darcy, bringing back Pride and Prejudice, to many, seemed redundant and pointless. Perhaps that would be true were it not for Keira Knightley. When an actress comes along who is so suited to the role, so naturally vibrant, everything Lizzy Bennet should be, people should move mountains to get the film made.

Playing a fiery Austen heroine has done much good for other A-list actresses like Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma). It is likely to be the role that puts Knightley firmly on the map as a leading lady and show what the very pretty girl can really do. It is Knightley who provides this adaptation with its uniqueness; has there ever really been an actress so perfect for this character? Many would say, Ehle was the quintessential Lizzie – and perhaps that’s true to the degree that she is a more accomplished actress. Yet it is Knightley’s rough edges and youthful abandon, however, that breathe new life into this story. Otherwise, why would we bother?

For those unfamiliar with the tale, Pride and Prejudice is the story of the Bennett family, a family burdened with no money and too many daughters to marry off. In order to survive financially (women can’t work, of course, and must be well-bred to be married well) the daughters must marry rich men. This puts a strain on the family because, naturally, the daughters want to marry for love, not wealth. Lizzie doesn’t find love until she realizes it’s been right there in front of her all along in the form of Darcy (MacFadyen). It is her pride and prejudice that prevents her from letting him in. Ultimately, he proves himself worthy of her affection and the rest is literary history.

Austen is marvelous in small doses but see enough film adaptations of her work back to back and the similarities between storylines begin to emerge, much as they do in other prolific writers’ work. Austen can always be counted on to feature good and bad men who woo, close sisterly relationships, hateful rich relatives on whom the good people’s fortune depends, fiery heroines, and shy, withdrawn ones. Austen writes people as opposites, extremes, and it takes an intelligent actor to bring the hidden complexities to life.

Even though we know the story backwards and forwards, Knightley keeps us guessing what emotions play across her face. She is, as Tracy is described in The Philadelphia Story “lit from within.” The camera loves her and it is impossible to take your eyes off her, both for her beauty as well for her unpredictability.

The story here really depends on the love story between Lizzie and Darcy. Even though everyone knows they will eventually fall madly in love, it is the getting there that is like indulging in fine chocolate. The rigid Darcy takes notice of, but then purposefully ignores Lizzie. But she melts his heart and finally he has no choice but to desperately proclaim that she has “bewitched” him “body and soul.” At which point, women everywhere simultaneously swoon.

MacFadyen’s Darcy is different than Firth’s (both Firth as the PBS Darcy and Firth as the Bridget Jones Darcy) in that he appears less intimidating, but equally priggish. There is something so undeniably attractive about him that there is no doubt Lizzie will be drawn in. And Austen makes it clear that Lizzie is the prize, too – not because she’s the fairest in the land, not because she has money (she has none) but because she believes in passion and decency. In Knightley, these qualities are so obvious they don’t have to be dug out from the text.

Joe Wright directed the adaptation with a naturalist’s eye, befitting the 19th century. It is raw rather than sumptuous, rugged and muddy rather than pristine. The film was adapted by Deborah Maggach in a way that might enrage Austen-ites but will make the story more accessible to today’s jaded generation.

As with all of Austen’s stories, there is always a weary elder who wears the burden of an annoying spouse or a tradition that traps people in roles they can hardly bear. Where Lizzie pierces right out of convention and finds her own way, her father (Donald Sutherland) sadly tolerates it. Sutherland hasn’t been this good in years.Pride and Prejudice is a version of the Austen work no one will likely forget, even if purists still cling to the Ehle/Firth version. It brings a healthy dose of romance back into our tired, old lives and reminds us that prematurely judging others, whether judging them because they are rich or poor, will ultimately deny us the potential for untold pleasure and incandescent happiness.

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