Like other well established demographics such as the comic book fiends or the star wars fans, women have their own groups. Not nearly as publicized or stigmatized, we have our potential obsessions- and oddly enough they typically involve lots and lots of words. And romance. This makes books a likely candidate to tickle a woman’s fancy: Oprah’s book club, (does anybody remember the Rules?), and of course, Jane Austen. Long revered was the BBC miniseries adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ten years before, starring one of women’s favorite reluctant leading men, Colin Firth. But with Focus Feature’s modern revamp of the timeless romance, the attempt to capture a new generation of hearts was clear. So how does this new version hold up to its predecessor?
If you’re like me, you’re tempted to assume the old version is better merely because it’s a miniseries and well, not made in 2005. In matters of faithfulness, the 1995 adaptation is considered essential. The series is nearly righteous in its detailed re-enactment from every plot point down to the accuracy of the period’s design, for which it won an Emmy. However if you’re a high-schooler with a book report due in the morning, the thought of tackling the five hour hour drama dwarfs the risks of just picking up the actual book considerably. The novel’s latest makeover may prove less is more, clocking in at 127 minutes and significantly reducing some of the book’s many plot lines. Characters Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins, Lydia Bennett & Mr. Wickham’s fates are reduced to supporting events surrounding the lives of the now entirely central characters of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. The screenplay was helped along by fellow Jane Austen hall-of-famer Emma Thompson who won an Oscar for her input on the re-workings another classic Sense & Sensibility. Joe Wright marks his feature film directing debut, a veteran of BBC television and unlikely candidate for the project with his handsomely disheveled eccentricity and admitted ignorance to the book- the director admits to not reading much growing up due to dyslexia.
Yet and still, the update, starring British natives Kiera Knightley and the brooding, unlikely swoon machine Matthew McFadyen, is blessed with a melodious script. And perhaps because of its director, is charmingly stocked with the supply of literary details needed to do equal justice to the book’s richness. You could say that what the older version took six hours to do, it’s update accomplished in a third of the time. And brimming with a refined 18th century sexiness, one that the older version decidedly lacks. Though Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle are successful in their roles as Darcy and Elizabeth, updated interpretations of the text that allow Darcy a double take first spotting Elizabeth and a glimpse into the couple’s psyche upon first physical touch are brilliant inclusions that linger a long time in the viewer almost as much as the characters- and the Sunday rain scene is the stuff fantasies are made of. Supporting roles by Brenda Blethyn and the irrepressibly awesome Dame Judy Dench definitely don’t hurt, and we can’t forget the biggest improvement: the characters are actually attractive.
The prime driving force of the updated version, however, is not Austen’s text. What makes the update one of the most heralded of 2005 is chemistry. The miracle casting of the Bennett sisters, the flighty soul of Mrs. Bennett matched with the witty grounded nature of her husband played by Donald Sutherland creates a spirit in the Bennett household that transcends any bonding exercises the actors may have had, and McFadyen turns in the kind of dimensionally complex and fragile performance as Darcy that makes you glad to be a woman. This partiality is not to suggest the older version is somehow worse or inferior. If you are willing to weigh the two as completely separate entities you’ll save yourself grief and heated arguments. One is an adaptation of a complex novel examining the detailed failings and victories of a society, the other an adaptation of a love story. Judge for yourself, or do yourself one better and read the actual book for goodness sake. But if you just want to give your heart away for a few hours to a romance that’s melancholy without being depressing, and enchanting without the sap, then the 2005 version is for you.