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Pride and Prejudice turns 16: Revisiting Keira Knightley’s beautifully vintage drama

Keira Knightley’s refreshing take on Pride and Prejudice lies at the crux of the film’s timeless appeal.

Shreya Paul
Nov 23, 2021
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A reticent, arrogant man falls in love with a self-assured, opinionated woman despite their initial reservations for each other. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could easily be ranked as British literature’s finest works on romance, love, and marriage (obviously, within the context of their times as well). Hollywood then, could hardly stay too far away from belting inspired adaptations of arguably the most popular global love story.

The cantankerous Bennets as opposed to Mr Darcy’s steadfast silence provided the perfect canvas for a narrative that involved romance but also, a significant amount of drama. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen’s 2005 film adaptation drummed up considerable expectations as it followed Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle’s smash-hit series that released a decade before that. Joe Wright (whose most famous work till then was Atonement) took on directorial reigns with Deborah Moggach (and Emma Thompson) penning the script.

For the most part, Wright stayed loyal to Austen’s interpretation of the characters, but introduced setting alterations that in fact, made the film an even more enjoyable experience. Instead of the constraining Victorian setting of Austen’s world, Wright placed his Lizzy Bennet (Knightley) and Darcy (Macfadyen) in a more gothic setup with ample shots of the green outdoors. The Bronte-like approach to the otherwise delicate plot seemed unusual at first, but seemed to bear fruit, nonetheless. Wright’s use of monolithic structures to imbue the narrative with a sense of stiffness is not completely futile. Darcy’s first proposal to Lizzy, standing amidst an opulent yet abandoned stone monument was crucial in building a crescendo that leads up to his overwhelming rejection. Though unconventional and even blasphemous enough for Austen purists to scoff at, Wright’s more modern treatment of the epic romantic saga was considerably well placed. 

In a similar vein, Wright took on the Bennets with much harsher undertones. His Bennets are in a much more economically compromised position as compared to Austen’s. Generous shots of farm life abound their family scenes, and they’re placed smack in the centre of a rustic, disheveled setup. This odd choice of stripping the family of its social equity, may have been a classic move to spotlight the class barriers between Lizzy and Darcy.

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Even though Pride and Prejudice (2005) was far from being a daring or revisionist adaptation of the original like Andrew Davies’ version of it, the film was true to Austen’s essence of portraying a compelling story of unlikely lovers. On the other hand, Thompson’s (uncredited) contribution to the film did not seem to help. The film lacked the intricacies showcased in the complex interpersonal dynamics of Sense and Sensibility (the 1995 film where Thompson herself entered Austen’s universe). Sidenote: Thompson’s sheer brilliance in the tearful exchange while comforting a jilted Marianne Dashwood (played by Kate Winslet), is incomparable in more ways than one.

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Knightley’s interpretation of Lizzy is by far the biggest redeeming factor in the film. The actress offers an irresistible blend of wit, self-awareness, delicate beauty, and intelligence to lace Lizzy’s significant presence. The actress’ on-screen confidence lends a natural air of abandon to the character. Knightley’s Lizzy is sprightly, mischievous, and funny, yet a hardbound sceptic who loves to champion the underdog. In a particular scene, when Darcy refers to her looks as adequately ‘tolerable’, a conversation Lizzie accidentally overhears, she is heartbroken and angry. Yet, on facing Darcy the next moment, she unabashedly flings the word at his face before walking out insouciantly. Lizzie, much like Knightley, is sufficiently secure of her own self-worth. More importantly, she refuses to take herself too seriously. She bursts into peals of laughter; engages in friendly banter with her sisters, what with all the under-the-table kicks to keep things within limits of propriety; does not shy away from pert backtalks and above all, proudly wears her emotions on her sleeve.

MacFadyen’s casting on the other hand has always been a sore spot for the dedicated critics of Austen’s works. Often considered an off-handish replacement of Firth’s more accessible version, MacFadyen did portray the reticence, conceit, and hauteur to the hilt. That’s not to say that the actor is completely unattached either – the scene when Darcy meets his sister after a long interim clearly shows his utter excitement and childlike glee, escalating the essence of the scene.

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Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn are brilliant as the Bennet parents. Blethyn’s sheer fervour as the anxious Mrs Bennet shines through her performance, always leaving the audience with an aftertaste of humour and discomfort. Tom Hollander’s standout act as the abominable Mr Collins is possibly the best sub-narrative.

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Pride and Prejudice took a different approach to Austen’s works while keeping the overall narrative intact. Knightley’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 2006 was a testament to the freshness she brought in the famed character.

The film’s satirical take on marriage through strong female voices was well appreciated by critics. Yet, Pride and Prejudice was beautifully vintage, almost like a bygone memory etched in a cinematic tableau.


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