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Pride and Prejudice’ hits the big screen

Cassie Belek | Wednesday, November 16, 2005

With a near-perfect and wildly popular miniseries just 10 years old, it does not seem as if “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen’s most-celebrated novel of her short writing career, is ready for another adaptation. Of course, missing the opportunity to do a remake just because it is too soon has never been the Hollywood way.

Enter director Joe Wright, who has the challenge of recreating the world of the Bennet sisters, while making his film distinct from the 1995 A&E miniseries and remaining true to Jane Austen’s masterpiece – not to mention keeping “Janenites” across the world happy. The result is a film that has critics buzzing and has already garnered Oscar hype.

“Pride and Prejudice,” starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew MacFadyen as Mr. Darcy, is a love story set in a time when a mother’s primary objective in life is to marry off her daughters to wealthy bachelors and intelligent and an independent young woman like Lizzie Bennet is a rarity. The movie follows the five Bennet girls – Jane, Lizzie, Mary, Kitty and Lydia – as their comically interfering mother (Brenda Blethyn) attempts to match them with suitable husbands.

When Mr. Bingley moves into the neighborhood and brings his handsome friend Mr. Darcy, both Jane and Lizzie seem to have struck gold. Yet it is only Jane who finds love with Mr. Bingley as Darcy’s pride interferes with his ability to open his heart to someone as inferior in status as Lizzie.

Likewise, Lizzie hears horrible details of Darcy’s character from new friend Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), whose own character is called into question, and jumps to the conclusion that she could never love a man who is that proud and that cruel. Alas, the makings of true love – misunderstanding and loathing – are present.

While the story is familiar to most, especially any female past the age of 16, those who have not yet traveled through Austen’s world should be in for a treat. The love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is one of the greatest of all time, though it is the filmgoers who are least familiar with the story who will also be least critical of the film.

Early reviews have been exceptional, with the movie earning three or four stars across the country. Little has been heard from the “Janenites” or even the die-hards of the miniseries. Those groups were most skeptical upon hearing that the film was being made, and even more skeptical upon learning that Keira Knightley was going to fill the role of their dear Lizzie.

The casting of Lizzie is essential to the film, and Knightley simply does not fit the description in the novel. While Elizabeth is supposed to be beautiful, she is not supposed to be as strikingly picturesque as Knightley. In the novel, older sister Jane is the real beauty.

Yet, Knightley is stunning and the camera loves her. In fact, Wright was even skeptical of casting Knightley because she was too attractive. Jennifer Ehle of the miniseries looked the part much better, but there is more to Lizzie than just her outward appearance. If Knightley can pull off the feminist and free-spirit aspects of Elizabeth, then she will have succeeded as much as Ehle did.

As important as casting Lizzie is, the film would be in tatters if not for the perfect Darcy. Judging from theatrical trailers for the movie, MacFadyen is certainly handsome enough, and even in the small moments he has been seen he seems to have that Darcy pride and mystique.

But can he surpass the Darcy of Colin Firth in the miniseries? The best he can hope for is to match it. The miniseries was Colin Firth’s big break, and rightly so. His Darcy has poise and haughtiness – audiences can never really tell what is going on in that mind of his.

Firth further cemented his claim in the role when he played Mr. Darcy once again in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” a movie based on “Pride and Prejudice” that co-starred Renée Zellweger. The challenge is to make moviegoers swoon over MacFadyen the same way they did over Firth, and convince them that there is room for more than one Darcy in this world.

Janenites adore the miniseries because it stays true to the novel and does not compromise any storylines. It really has no reason to compromise within its five-hour running time. As far as miniseries go, “Pride and Prejudice” one is as popular as “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” and its DVD sets are perennial bestsellers.

The new film is only two hours long, so expect story cuts. Emma Thompson, who has starred in a Jane Austen film (1995’s “Sense and Sensibility,” directed by Ang Lee), even did a free and uncredited re-write of the script. What is most important is the capturing of the story’s essence, and preview critics who have seen the film are saying that has been done.

A Janenite should view the film with an open mind and not constantly pick it apart (a habit that ruins even the “Harry Potter” movies for many), and a newcomer should just enjoy the ride.

Now that Hollywood has sunk its teeth into Jane Austen’s timeless love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, maybe it will wait longer than 10 years for the next remake.