If ever there was a bit of material not in need of a good dusting, it's this novel; no more mystery can be wrung from its machinations. But director Joe Wright, a maker of BBC movies that look period without belonging too much to the past, has, with writer Deborah Moggach, made the material feel just as modern as Clueless, the 1996 version of Emma set in Beverly Hills. Wright's camera is as restless as the characters, who ache to find that wondrous thing hidden in plain sight. This Pride & Prejudice is beautiful but also delightfully grimy, as though someone had poured a garden's worth of dirt all over the prop department and cast, including Rosamund Pike as Jane, the older sister in love with the awkward and wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). There's something more real about this version, more human, more lived-in.
What could have been dreary and old-fashioned, a potential montage of bodices and balls sure to glaze the eyes of the moviegoer, has the zing and sting of the au courant. Surely much of that has to do with Knightley as Lizzie, who is more beautiful than Austen imagined a fact that amplifies the heroine's spark, scorn and wit. Why would such a beauty settle for the ghastly Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), the ecclesiastic who promises Lizzie and her grotesquely social-climbing mother (Brenda Blethyn) a lifetime of middling wealth, when she can snare Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), whom she claims to loathe but so clearly loves? Knightley's Lizzie is all the more threatening because of her looks; a bright sun such as this clearly doesn't live in the shadows, as Lizzie has been wont to do in other adaptations.
And its warmth is evident in the casting of MacFadyen, whose dour demeanor allows for the occasional glint of repressed ardor, and Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet, Lizzie's poor, put-upon father, who wants for his five daughters the happiness that Blethyn's character insists they sacrifice for the promise of everlasting wealth. Wright's Pride is marvelous and compelling; of all the adaptations, it is perhaps the one possessing the biggest heart, which finally bursts toward film's end, as Darcy and Lizzie march toward each other during the inevitable climax that, amazingly enough, still plays with the freshness, tenderness and passion of a first kiss.