All right, let us talk about the elephant in the room. More precisely, let us talk about the smoldering British thinking-woman's- heartthrob who isn't in the room. Colin Firth isn't in Joe Wright's new screen version of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," but he casts an elegant shadow over it, simply because everybody who asks me about this movie wants to know if it's as good as "the Colin Firth one." And then they usually start talking about Colin Firth, and the conversation tends to get all giggly.
For those mystified by the previous paragraph, the "Colin Firth one" is the 1995 BBC made-for-television version of "Pride & Prejudice," featuring Firth as the enigmatic Mr. Darcy. This five-hour version has legions of fans who've watched it over and over, and to whom no other Austen adaptation will do. (This, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that at one point Firth jumps into a pond and gets his shirt all wet and clingy. I've carefully viewed this scene — for research purposes, mind you — and don't remember it at all.)
Those who think the 1995 version is perfect may well find this one lacking. Deborah Moggach's thoughtful screenplay trims out much of the plot, by necessity, to fit into two hours, and Austen purists may grumble. Nor does it quite have the wit and depth of my own favorite Austen film, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's adaptation of "Sense & Sensibility," which seemed to find the perfect balance of brevity, intelligence and swoony British men. Nor does it have Firth, whose quietly intelligent Darcy will remain definitive.
But Wright's film offers ample charms of its own, not the least of which is a confident and lovely performance by Keira Knightley as the heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Younger than many other screen Elizabeths (like the character she plays, Knightley's barely out of her teens), the actress brings a fetching and often fiery exuberance to the role. It's the best work she's done on film.
Matthew Macfadyen, as Darcy, won't make anyone forget Firth — he's not so much brooding as sad. But his quiet frost pairs nicely with Knightley's warmth; he makes no attempt to ingratiate his character to us but holds Darcy's passions tightly within until he finally confesses his feelings to Elizabeth in a sudden gasp of "I love you, most honorably" (fittingly, outdoors in a rainstorm).
Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn contribute nicely detailed portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (we're allowed to sense, in tiny hints, that these two are in love with each other). Rosamund Pike is daintily pretty as Jane, and Judi Dench trumpets nicely as the much-feared Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Filmed at an array of British stately homes and filled with swirling skirts and green gardens, this "Pride & Prejudice" is a treat for the eyes. Roman Osin's camerawork in particular deserves singling out: One scene, a party at Netherfield Park, is a dazzlingly long single take as the camera winds from room to room through the crowds, like a slightly tipsy party guest taking in the sights.
Ultimately, as Darcy emerges through a swirl of mist (squint a bit and you'll think it's Firth), "Pride & Prejudice" satisfies as dreamy romance. It's not the razor-sharp satire that Austen can be, but it's lovely entertainment. In a charming scene near the end, an unexpected visitor arrives at the Bennet home and the ladies, who had casually been lounging about, rush to arrange themselves into a pleasing tableau. This society was never quite as picture-perfect as it would like to appear — but this film couldn't be prettier.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org