Pride and Prejudice (U)

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The Independent Culture

This new film adaptation sensibly avoids duplicating the moment, though in so many other particulars it challenges one's own fondly held ideas of how a scene should be played, and how a part should be cast. I was alarmed on first seeing Matthew Macfadyen make his entrance as Mr Darcy, projecting an air not so much lofty as queasy, as though he'd just swallowed a bad oyster. Gradually his saturnine character imposes itself on the screen, yet he occasionally struggles to make haughtiness look something other than dull bad manners. I also kept changing my mind about Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet; there's something too modern in her manner, and she plays Lizzie's pertness a touch broadly. Yet in Darcy's first, disastrous proposal scene Knightley finds the right mixture of wounded pride and blazing indignation as she goes toe-to-toe with her startled suitor, and by the end her charm may win you round.

It's important that the film gets the two leads right, because the book has been whittled down so thinly that amiability too often has to cover for plausibility. Screenwriter Deborah Moggach, obliged to pack the story inside a shade over two hours, hacks and hews at the expense of Austen's psychological subtlety, her tremendous set-pieces and waspish characterisation. Instead of those elegant sentences we are offered elegant interiors, costumes and props, not an unpleasant substitute but not an adequate one, either. The main pivot of the plot - Lizzie's discovery that she has got bounder and hero the wrong way round - will only make sense if we believe she has invested some feeling in the caddish Wickham (Rupert Friend), but the latter is on screen for no more than five minutes. As for Darcy's letter that apprises Lizzie of this, it is so chopped up that we barely register the information as a corrective at all.

Director Joe Wright initially seems to be aiming at the casual realism of Dutch domestic painting, the early glimpse of family life seen through a doorway a wink to Vermeer or de Hooch. Later, he switches to the posed formalities of Gainsborough, and pulls off one good visual joke when the Bennet family, lazing about in their drawing room, are panicked by a surprise call from Bingley and Darcy; before their visitors enter the room the sisters, belying the two-minute flurry of neatening skirts and plumping cushions, have marshalled themselves into a serene composition of gentility. Elsewhere deportment is an index of social confidence, or lack of it: when Lizzie arrives at Netherfield to visit her ill sister, she is received by Darcy, Bingley and his sister stiffly ranged around a table as though they are magistrates about to hear a case. As the toadying Mr Collins, Tom Hollander has a glorious moment of confusion adapting his posture before his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench): he somehow contrives to bow while remaining upright at the same time.

Yet there is also a gathering suspicion that this Pride and Prejudice has had its edges softened, most notably in the portrayal of Mr Bennet. As played by Donald Sutherland he's become a vague and doddery old cove, lacking the twinkly sarcasm that Austen caught so brilliantly, while his accent is anything but that of an English country gent. He delivers the famous put-down to his daughter Mary as she plonks away at the piano ("You have delighted us long enough") but later apologises to her. Why this liberty, when so much that's actually in the novel has been sacrificed? This misrepresentation is felt the more keenly when news of Wickham's elopement with Lydia reaches the Bennets, and the consequences of Mr Bennet's dereliction as a father are finally exposed. But the scandal is registered only as a mild inconvenience. The one character who benefits from cutting is Mrs Bennet, whose shrill twitter is perhaps more annoying than even her creator intended - Brenda Blethyn ably impersonates "a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper", though happily keeps the pantomime-dame act to a minimum.

There is nothing much to dislike about this adaptation, and equally nothing much to get excited about. The makers have rebuffed the assumption that Pride and Prejudice has been overdone on the grounds that, while TV has revisited the book, it has only once been turned into a film, MGM's 1940 version starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. Nonetheless, you may be puzzled by the cautiousness of their approach, and feel disappointed at a production that seems more in awe of the grand houses to which it gained access than the timeless glories of Austen's prose. First impressions can be misleading, as the novel argues, but I don't imagine the film will improve on a second look.