It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a classic story in possession of a blockbuster film must be in want of a remake. After the resounding success of the 1995 BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, it was almost inevitable that the ensuing wave of Austen-mania would reach Hollywood. Somewhat surprisingly, no one wanted to compete against the original with a straightforward adaptation, so most films based on the novel were reinterpretations, either chronologically or geographically displaced from the original setting. It wasn't for another ten years that a newcomer to Hollywood, Joe Wright, would actually attempt a direct remake of the novel.
Let's get something out of the way first: it is a tad bit unfair to compare a two hour Hollywood film to the BBC adaptation. These are different media, and it simply is not possible for the film to be anywhere near as a faithful to the novel as a six-hour miniseries marathon. The fact that the producers of the 2005 film managed to condense a tightly written novel down to two hours while preserving the narrative sequence and many of the best lines (including many that were excised from the 1995 script!) is immensely impressive, however you cut it. The omissions and inaccuracies in the 2005 film may be readily excused as an inevitable by-product of the running time. The real question is, how did this film deal with the material within those time constraints?
The 2005 film was marketed pretty directly as a romantic comedy, and tended to shy away from the "period piece" description. This led to several artistic licenses with the text that were pretty widely decried by the loyal adherents of the 1995 film, and I admit several of those licenses made me queasy. For instance, the setting for Darcy's second proposal was moved from a country lane in midday to a lush meadow in a misty dawn. I laughed quite a bit when I first saw that scene, for it was so unbelievably cliched. The epilogue (which only appeared for American audiences, Lord love the British) was also nauseatingly cheesy. On the other hand, the epilogue did occur after Darcy and Lizzie were married, which almost redeems it in my book. So many adaptations of Austen novels are content to end with a declaration of love, or with a wedding, where Austen is generally pretty careful to show the couple in their married state.
There were other stylistic decisions that riled the Janeite community. One common complaint was that the costumes weren't authentic to the Regency period. In the film's defense, the producers apparently intended to set the story in 1797, when fashion in the (slightly earlier) Colonial style would have still been common among the lower gentry, while Miss Bingley and the elite would have dressed in the more up-to-date Regency fashion. I am not an expert in Regency fashion, and do not particularly care to be, and am therefore somewhat apathetic on the subject. I cannot fault the film for slight anachronisms of style, when the story and characterizations weigh so much more heavily on my mind. In a similar vein, many Austen loyalists noted that Lizzie's home is so dirty that it could hardly be called the house of a country gentleman: perfect order was considered the sign of beauty (a baroque and classical sensibility), and disarray was not considered picturesque until much later, under the romantic and impressionistic influences. Both choices were deliberate, since the film's director wanted to move away from the staid environment of a "period piece" and make the setting more relatable to modern audiences.
Due to the limits of time, several minor characters were cut out or greatly reduced in importance; however, of those who remain, I think I prefer this version's treatment of them to that of the 1995 adaptation. The 1995 version was so leisurely paced that the humor became somewhat muted; to preserve a sense of fun, the minor characters were obliged to become caricatures, and were played for laughs. The harried pacing of the 2005 film preserves the quick wit and pace of the novel; thus, I think it is paradoxically due to the time restraints that the minor characters were given enough room to shine.
My favorite minor character in the film is Georgiana, Mr. Darcy's younger sister. She is described in the novel and in the 1995 miniseries as shy. In sharp contrast, the 2005 version makes her an energetic companion to Lizzie: this is not entirely like the book, but is true to Georgiana's "eager[ness]... to be pleased" that is not so readily shown in the 1995 version. Moreover, the 2005 film brilliantly depicts the affection between her and her brother, and we get a real sense of the family bond that they will share with Lizzie after the end of the book. Also, it should be said that the knowing glance she casts to Darcy when she meets Lizzie for the first time is absolutely brilliant. It is hinted in the novel that Darcy had spoken to her about his feelings for Lizzie, and this is the perfect 'younger-sister' look that conveys that back-story.
The members of the Bennet family are likewise cast in a much superior light. Mr. Bennet is given a more compassionate edge -- less of an insensitive outsider who only cares to laugh at his family, and more of a sensitive father and family participant with a keen sense of humor. He consoles his daughter Mary after her disastrous performance at the Netherfield Ball, and at the end of the film we get a glimpse (thanks to a brilliant performance by Donald Sutherland) of his true affection for Lizzie. The characterization of Mrs. Bennet is almost an infinite improvement on the 1995 version: she is still played for laughs, but she depicted in a much more reasonable light. This is, in my mind, truer both to Austen's original description, and to the social realities which would produce such a character. Their daughter Mary is likewise almost infinitely better than the 1995 version's view of her. Mary is plain, and self-conscious about it; she is neither pretty nor accomplished, and is overshadowed at every turn by her sisters. She desperately seeks attention, and wishes to perform for that reason, but she hasn't received the guidance to enter society gracefully. This is no self-righteous prig; this is a young girl trying to grow up.
I liked Mr. Collins far more in the 2005 film, and that is to its credit. He is odious, of course, and we are intended to dislike him for his obsequious attentions to Lizzie, but we cannot forget his essential good nature. He is, after all, introduced into the novel because he wants to repair the breach between his late father and Mr. Bennet, and his design to marry a Bennet girl is an attempt to let the Bennet family partake in the estate after their father's death, to make amends for the unfortunate entailment that would have otherwise deprived them! Mr. Collins is low-born and overwhelmed by the sensation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s generosity to him (as well as her rank and general formidableness), so it is not surprising that he praises her over-much. He is a comic creation, but we must not forget that he is hardly one-dimensional.
As for his wife, the former Charlotte Lucas, the 1995 version greatly annoyed me by treating her as essentially mercenary, who married Mr. Collins solely for the comfortable living.. The 2005 film did a much better job of depicting her desperation, from living on the verge of becoming an old maid, and her good nature. I felt as though the 1995 version made her friendship with Lizzie almost a mystery, they had so little in common, but the 2005 film went a long way in correcting that mistake.
As for the two leads, it must be said that neither can compare to the main characters in the 1995 version. They simply don't have as much time to make a clear impression. While I concede freely that Kiera Knightley was not the best choice for casting Lizzie, it was not as disastrous as some might say. Jennifer Ehle had six hours of screen time to establish Lizzie's good nature through small brushstrokes -- discreet and knowing glances, a brief scene of playing with Bingley's dog, etc. Kiera Knightley did not have the luxury of a understated performance, and was obliged to establish Lizzie's good nature within a shorter span. I felt Knightley's portrayal was a bit freer, more relaxed and perhaps even quicker to laugh, than Jennifer Ehle's. She has been criticized quite a bit for her performance, but I cannot condemn it so readily.
As for Matthew MacFayden, he must suffer in comparison to the definitive performance of Colin Firth, but in one respect he was superior. MacFayden much more clearly conveys Darcy's essential awkwardness and shyness from the beginning, which is in fact true to the novel. We can see why Lizzie would despise him, but we get glimpses of his true nature earlier on and therefore understand both his true nature and Lizzie's misapprehensions about that nature. The 1995 version follows Lizzie's perspective quite closely, correcting her mistakes as she does, but this has the disadvantage of making his ultimate conversion into a romantic hero somewhat befuddling (and also comes perilously close to the classic romantic comedy error of letting the heroine "change" the hero from his former "bad boy" persona). In the 2005 version, Darcy is given the chance to defend himself, particularly in the first proposal scene, where he acquits himself of Lizzie's attacks on the subject of Jane and Mr. Bingley quite well. While we understand Lizzie's resentment, we sympathize with Darcy, and that is essential to understand the novel.
I cannot heap enough compliments on the cinematography, and the soundtrack is absolutely perfect. Given the fact that almost all of the music is original, it is stunning in its resemblance to music from the period. These two aspects go a long way in accentuating the other virtues of the film. It is not a period piece, but that was not its intent. The film conveys the essential joy of the novel in a way that cannot be adequately expressed within the staid environment of Regency England. It should be remembered that the settings of medieval fairy tales were originally very familiar -- castles and cottages were as as common as cars today -- and did not become exotic until much later. Likewise, the atmosphere of the times would have been familiar to Austen's readers: they would have had no difficulty in relegating the setting to the background. Today, however, the setting is so foreign to modern readers that it almost invariably dominates our impression of the novel. By removing that 'period' atmosphere from consideration, the 2005 film offers a different (and in some instances clearer) perspective at the underlying characterizations and story.