In 1995, the BBC put out a miniseries version of Jane Austen's classic novel, Pride and Prejudice. The story follows Elizabeth Bennet, her sisters, and her parents, as Mrs. Bennet attempts to find suitable husbands for her daughters. Though this was by no means the first on-screen adaptation of the novel, it has become the definitive one. With six episodes that each run for nearly an hour, the miniseries is able to provide far more depth than a traditional film. Additionally, it manages to convey much of the wit of Austen's novel while not losing the seriousness (for the characters) of what occurs.
With that 1995 version of the story – and Colin Firth's incredibly memorable turn as Mr. Darcy – fixed in the minds of so many, it may seem like folly to attempt another two-hour filmic version. So much occurs in the novel, and so much of the plot is present in the miniseries, that a two-hour version must leave out moments which are sure to be favorites of some in the audience. And yet, in 2005, during the 10-year anniversary of the miniseries, director Joe Wright (The Soloist) attempted to put forth a new adaptation of the novel, with Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) in the role of Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen (MI-5) filling Mr. Firth's shoes.
In the end, not only did Knightley's role in the film earn her a Golden Globe as well as an Academy Award nomination, but the film itself was nominated for numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. The film is a crashing success, with Knightley giving an outstanding performance and excellent work by many of the supporting players, including Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth's sister, Jane; Brenda Blethyn as Mrs. Bennet; Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins; and Judi Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourg. In fact, the greatest disappointment in the film is Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet. Sutherland's interpretation of Mr. Bennet makes the character incredibly serious and introspective, a man lost in his own world and entirely removed from his family. There is little given in the film to support this interpretation and consequently Sutherland's Bennet, who gives the feel of something like a retired soldier living with PTSD, appears wholly out of place in an otherwise enjoyable film.
Wright's film, with a screenplay by Deborah Moggach, manages to brilliantly condense the novel into the just over two hour running time. Though some moments from the novel are lost, the entirety of the story is conveyed, and infused with the same sort of humor that Austen included in her book.
Visually, the new Blu-ray release of the film is not all that one would hope. While much of it looks outstanding, particularly scenes in some of the more palatial homes and the outdoor scenes, the film is inconsistently grainy, at times looking very filmic and at times not. There is a great level of detail in the costumes (which are wonderful in this period drama), but some scenes within the film are hampered by digital noise. Additionally, definition within blacks is almost wholly lost within the film. There are certainly scenes which were intended to be almost exceedingly dark, but even in well lit scenes, details of darker items cannot be made out. The sound, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, does a better job than the video. Some of the more quiet dialogue is slightly muddled, but the score is completely immersive and helps sweep the viewer into the film.
The extras included on the Blu-ray disc include two brief featurettes where the cast discusses the experience of making the film. Although they spend a lot of time expressing the great deal of joy they had working on the movie, their words come off as far more genuine than the majority of DVD extras which feature such talk (this reviewer would bet that while the actors here are good, the emotion is in fact genuine). There are also discussions of Jane Austen and dating in the 18th century (particularly as it affects this story) included on the Blu-ray as well as the HBO First Look episode focused on the movie, a commentary with Wright, and a look at some of the more impressive homes used in the film. It is this last piece which is the most interesting; it features both people who worked on the film as well as those who work in the homes in question discussing not only the way in which the estates were utilized in the film, but their actual historical significance as well.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, though very much rooted in the culture of the 18th century, is a love story that transcends the time period in question. In this film, Macfadyen and Knightley convey the love Darcy and Elizabeth feel for one another to the audience perfectly, if not making the roles their own, then certainly not finding themselves stuck trying to overcome past representations of the characters. As a whole, this film does not find itself shackled to the past, and even if some of the choices made – like Sutherland's representation of Mr. Bennet – fail to impress, the majority of the film does, and is well worth seeing, even for those who will forever be in love with the image of Colin Firth emerging from his swim in the lake.