Instant name recognition aside, literary adaptations have a lot stacked against them from the start. Not only do they have to live up to the source material, they have to feel necessary. Sure, Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet was an unwieldy mess, but it didn't help that Franco Zeffirelli and Mel Gibson had done a serviceable job by it in 1990. And viewers apparently didn't feel a need to embrace yet another version of Oliver Twist, even one from Roman Polanski. Similarly, the beloved 1995 British miniseries version of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice casts a long shadow over the newest version, directed by Joe Wright and written by Deborah Moggach—both British TV vets making their full-length theatrical debuts. But after about half a scene, it's clear this new version will cast a pretty long shadow of its own.
The film opens—sans Austen's famous first lines—on the Bennett house, portrayed as a vibrant, lively, noisy, messy place whose everyday activity shoots up to fever pitch at the news of the imminent arrival of Simon Woods, a wealthy, single neighbor. Sensing a good—or at least financially sound—match for her eldest daughter Rosamund Pike, Brenda Blethyn sets about making sure Pike doesn't escape Woods' attention. Meanwhile, Blethyn's next-to-eldest daughter Keira Knightley meets Woods' distant friend Matthew MacFadyen, and they take an instant dislike to each other. (It doesn't last.)
From there, Wright clicks through Austen's familiar impediments to true love, but he never forgets he's making a movie, not porting a book to a new medium. He fills every corner of his widescreen compositions and keeps the camera as lively as his cast, overlapping dialogue à la Robert Altman and choreographing his ballroom sequences in ways that go well beyond the steps on the dance floor. Most importantly, the director, script, and cast (rounded out by Judi Dench and well-placed imports Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone) all recognize that Austen is about much more than pretty costumes and knowing looks. The film captures the financial stakes behind Blethyn's compulsive matchmaking, the lonely fates of unattached and "ruined" women, the games the upper classes play to keep the middle class in its place, and the persistent, understated sexual urgency beneath the polite surface of everyday life.
All the elements get dissolved in the slow-boiling romance between Knightley (striking just the right note of pre-feminist pride) and MacFadyen, whose strong, slightly puzzled-looking features register each lesson as he learns it. And he learns quickly. Wright wastes no time in squeezing the plot into his just-over-two hours running time, but the film never feels rushed, particularly when so much of it is spent watching and waiting, as the characters come to understand the world they live in—and that even with its hypocrisies, love still means more than anyone can put into words.