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Pride & Prejudice

(2005) *** 1/2 Pg
127 min. Focus Features. Director: Joe Wright. Cast: Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone, Donald Sutherland.

The last decade has seen no less than four prominent filmed adaptations of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, including a Mormon version and Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood-styled pastiche Bride & Prejudice. For the latest revision, director Joe Wright's sexes up the 1813 novel, Kenneth Branagh-style. Casting hot new star Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet—as well as Matthew MacFadyen, Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone, Brenda Blethyn, Judi Dench and Donald Sutherland—Wright resists being overly reverent to his source and pursues a clean narrative streamline.

One of five sisters, Elizabeth is the calm at the center of a storm: a mania for marriageable men. Pike's not-so-plain Jane, always served up first by the hyperactive Mrs. Bennet (Blethyn), attracts the attention of one Mr. Bingley. Meanwhile, Bingley's dour compatriot Mr. Darcy (MacFadyen, of TV's MI-5) bemusedly initiates a passive-aggressive anti-romance with Elizabeth, culminating in the inevitable Well-Made Ending. Dench, as the mean-spirited Lady Catherine de Bourg, and Sutherland, as Mr. Bennet, happily make the most of their respective scenic gems.

The populist approach has the disadvantage of somewhat curtailing Austen's witty breadth. The magic-hour climax, which literally fogs up the lens, constitutes a near-parody of romance-novel cliches: the tall romantic hero, in boots and long, flapping coat but no longer reticent or overly proper, strides across a moor to his windswept beloved. The source of Darcy's slow-melting stiffness remains entirely inscrutable, and worse, pivotal romantic rival Wickham (Rupert Friend) gets so little play that he remains a transparent device.

But Wright's ability to evoke sympathy for even the marginal characters—partly by exercising ingeniously economical staging to catch them in private moments—distinguishes this Pride & Prejudice. More than once, Wright orchestrates long tracking shots to orient the audience to the large cast of characters sharing the same time and space. In one scene, Wright pulls off the conceit of making Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy appear to be blissfully alone in a frozen moment at the end of a dance; in many like-minded moments, Wright takes in telling gestures and expressions to enliven scenes approaching their 200th birthday.

One character mulls the unthinkable: "We are all fools in love." Wright doesn't ignore the dark underside of the story, the gender and class powerlessness of the marry-or-else Bennet sisters. Still, his 127-minute Pride & Prejudice is surprisingly sprightly—a boon for weary holiday moviegoers.

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