- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

What a difference a month makes. At this time in October, English actress Keira Knightley appeared to be prematurely damaged goods, left in a tawdry heap by director Tony Scott, who displayed her as a doomed gun moll in “Domino.” Now a happy fluke of timing has restored Miss Knightley to enviably civilized and endearing status as the latest incarnation of Jane Austen’s most precocious and eligible gentlewoman, Elizabeth Bennet, in a graceful and gladdening new film version of “Pride & Prejudice.”

The first theatrical adaptation since MGM’s 1940 production with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, this richly satisfying remake is enhanced by English locations and evocative period trappings that create a very tactile and lived-in illusion of the early 19th century. A confident recruit from British television, director Joe Wright eliminates many episodes from the book but does right by just about everything he preserves.

A classic of sometimes agonizing domestic and romantic comedy, “Pride & Prejudice” is rediscovered in attractive and revealing ways. For example, there’s a feel for landscapes and interiors that adds distinction to every residence, notably the Bennet farm in Hertfordshire that has nurtured Lizzie, the second of five daughters who face a bleak future without advantageous marriages, and the Darcy estate in Derbyshire that could become her matrimonial destination. In the early stages, Mr. Wright is especially deft at staging dances as both jubilant spectacle and character-delineating exposition.

The “Bridget Jones” books and films, which update Jane Austen plots in effectively brash ways, have kept reminding people that U.K. audiences enjoyed a huge crush on the “Pride & Prejudice” mini-series of 1995. That TV hit co-starred Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie and Colin Firth as her misunderstood and overcompensating suitor, Fitzwilliam Darcy, whose aristocratic stuffed shirt conceals a generous and devoted nature.

Miss Knightley’s large eyes, slim figure and delicately chiseled profile give her Lizzie an immediate photogenic magnetism, enlarged by a watchful, humorous, tenderhearted temperament that matches the prototype admirably. This young actress authenticates the idea of a witty and headstrong girl whose cleverness leaves room for self-reproach and correction, especially when she discovers that her first impressions have been grievously shortsighted.

This “Pride & Prejudice” also boasts sound performances from Brenda Blethyn as Lizzie’s mother, Rosamunde Pike as her virtuous sister Jane, Jena Malone as her scandalous sister Lydia, Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy, Tom Hollander as the obsequious cleric Mr. Collins and Judi Dench as the imperious Lady Catherine. Donald Sutherland comes closer than anyone I’ve seen to suggesting the self-defeating mixture of intelligence and sloth in Lizzie’s father, Mr. Bennet. Cinematographer Roman Osin, production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran are all plausible Oscar candidates for their work here.

There’s one panoramic image so awesome that it takes your breath away: Miss Knightley posed on a rocky outcropping overlooking a valley during Lizzie’s excursion with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. The wind cooperates handsomely by billowing her skirt. All similar poses are reduced to also-rans, including Gary Cooper awaiting Patricia Neal at the top of the ascending construction elevator in “The Fountainhead.” Which is as it should be: Jane Austen always has surpassed Ayn Rand as a fountainhead.

****

TITLE: “Pride & Prejudice”

RATING: PG (Adult subject matter, involving elements of family and romantic conflict; no objectionable language or depiction)

CREDITS: Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Deborah Maggoch, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Cinematography by Roman Osin. Production design by Sarah Greenwood. Costume design by Jacqueline Durran. Hair and makeup design by Fae Hammond. Editing by Paul Tothill. Music by Dario Marianelli.

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

WEB SITE: www.prideandprejudicemovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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