Everyone knows that Keira Knightley is lovely, vibrant, and gloriously young, that she can play feisty and dreamy with equally apparent ease. But here’s the thing about Keira Knightley. For all her many roles and overexposure during the past few years (she told Jon Stewart that, having just turned 20, she’s made 11 films, or maybe the one she’s working on now is the eleventh; she’s lost count), she’s not made embarrassing choices. True, the blue body paint in King Arthur was a bit dicey, and the zappily battering violence of Domino didn’t quite attract the MTV crowd the way distributors hoped. But Knightley always seems clever.
Maybe it’s the accent. And in her new venture, the latest incarnation of Pride & Prejudice, the accent doesn’t even stand out. This even as Joe Wright’s film, punctuated with tinkly piano fills and golden-lit, wholly strollable fields, is occasionally bogged down in reverence for its familiar source material. Knightley is well suited to play Elizabeth Bennet, famously self-directed and stubborn, an “independent woman” a century before Destiny’s Child named the type. Being so ahead of her time, Elizabeth is terribly attractive. Still, she’s stuck in her time, assigned by temperament to look after her four sisters, tolerate her mother (Brenda Blethyn), and dote on her daddy (Donald Sutherland).
She’s also destined to love the man who seems so annoying to her on first sight, the utterly uninteresting Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen, so not Colin Firth). They meet at a meet-and-greet ball near her family home, Darcy being a guest of the well-heeled, if bumbling Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) and his preposterous sister Caroline (Kelly Reilly). Their arrival in town sets the Bennets, especially the bubbly Mrs. Bennet, into a tizzy, as they’re all looking for wealthy husbands, especially since their own, respectable but small family estate is set to be inherited by the nearest male heir, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander). As the rest of the partiers frolic and giggle — and girls do a lot of giggling here, especially irritating Bennet teens Lydia (Jenna Malone) and Kitty (Carey Mulligan) — Darcy and Elizabeth exchange daggery looks.
Thus begins the usual Austen pairing off, designated couples defined, divided, and brought back together. Upright sort Bingley (“I’m not a big reader, I prefer being out of doors”) falls for Elizabeth’s bland sister Jane (Rosamund Pike, revived from her stint in Doom), and Darcy starts squabbling with Elizabeth. He broods and grumps, she’s given to pensive rhapsodies, twisting round and round on a rope swing in the family barn, the image slowed down to make sure you note her daunting loveliness. Darcy certainly does — again and again, even as he does his best to resist, by damning the locals (“I find the country perfectly adequate”) and convincing Bingley to abandon Jane (as the Bennets, save for the refined Elizabeth and reserved Jane, do tend to betray their middle classness in gaudy behaviors).
Though their volatile romance is the basis for Austen’s class critique, it is a romance, and Elizabeth must come to realize not only that she is attracted to this difficult fellow but also that he’s generous and tender, perfectly adequate boyfriend material, and only a bit oppressed by his own relative, the ferocious Lady Catherine (Judi Dench). When she makes a late night visit to the Bennets to warn Elizabeth to keep away from her nephew, the younger woman takes this as a challenge on two fronts: one, she’s just now learned that Darcy actually “likes” her (in high school fashion), and two, she now has a more formidable force to fight in the awesome shape of Lady Catherine, puffed up to a kind of regal self-assuredness.
And so the film establishes the ideal couple by setting then against conventionally imperfect others. Elizabeth’s pride looks almost worthy in comparison to the too-loud Mrs. Bennet, rebellious Lydia; arrogant Caroline, her unhappily married best friend Charlotte (Claudie Blakley); and Darcy’s dullness looks strangely dynamic compared to weasely Mr. Collins and malleable Bingley. The only character who seems remotely healthy and at ease with that health is Mr. Bennet. And he’s bearing up under the burden of “knowing” that in producing five daughters, he has left them vulnerable to the vagaries of the marriage system by not providing them with an estate and fancy name.
That Elizabeth never sees past this system, only gets “around it” by falling in love with her monied, much desired object, is only one of several disappointments. Most of these have to do with that tinkly piano, along with other art-housey shorthands: the rain on the heath, the letter-writer’s voiceover to reveal events or “feelings.” Worse, the movie cuts and runs on the question of marriage as a means to self-definition, lapsing at last into familiar sentiment. Without the sharp edge of Austen’s language, kissy images just look mushy. All this bears down hard on golden girl Keira Knightley. But she can take it. She’s surely brilliant and talented and adept at delivering his sort of self-obesessing dialogue and — no small thing — inviting you to love her for (or in spite of) it. Though for the moment she remains most divine when she’s swashing and buckling, she’s got that thing.