We love Elizabeth Bennet in our family. So perhaps we may be forgiven some initial skepticism about Keira Knightley.
Oh, we liked Keira just fine in "Bend It Like Beckham," which Mona, our soccer-playing 14-year-old, has seen a bazillion times. But "Beckham" wasn't based on a nearly perfect book by Jane Austen. Nor did it feature one of the great female characters in English literature, after whom Lizzie, our nearly-16-year-old, was partly named.
So when the three of us settled in to watch the new "Pride and Prejudice" -- the girls' mother being otherwise engaged -- we couldn't help thinking: Is Keira really up to this?
We had other questions, too. Could the leisurely 19th-century novel Mona read and loved for the first time last summer really be squeezed into a couple of hours? How much would we be annoyed by the inevitable changes necessary to the translation from book to film? How much more would we be annoyed by the completely unnecessary changes that the filmmakers undoubtedly would have thrown in?
They always do, the girls have learned, even in the best adaptations. Lizzie, a serious Tolkien reader, still hasn't forgiven director Peter Jackson for his tone-deaf mischaracterization of Faramir, prince of Gondor, in "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." And don't even talk to Mona about the film version of "Ella Enchanted."
So we watched, then sat down to hash it over. Not to keep you in suspense, we're delighted to report that this is a film an Austen lover can love.
Key word: "can." Because you certainly might choose not to. Especially if you put too much weight on the ending, which differs from the version showing in England and which should carry a label that reads: "Warning -- Not Found in Austen. Tacked On Because Filmmakers Think Americans Are Unsubtle Romantic Idiots."
But let's begin at the beginning.
"Pride and Prejudice" centers on the moral, intellectual and emotional confrontation between a nobleman of enormous wealth and pride, Mr. Darcy, and the independent-minded, relatively poor Elizabeth, who takes a fierce initial dislike to him. Austen brings these combatants to life -- along with an extensive supporting cast -- with subtle, sharp-edged prose, and one of the first questions we had was whether the film would dumb down the language she puts in her characters' mouths.
Right away Mona noticed, with approval, a familiar bit of setup dialogue. Mrs. Bennet asks her husband whether he wants to hear about the gentleman who's rented a house nearby. "Well as you wish to tell me, my dear," he says, "I doubt I have any choice in the matter." Those are not Austen's precise words, but they're close enough. The film, for the most part, adapts her language in ways that feel authentic.
More first reactions:
Brenda Blethyn's Mrs. Bennet is perfect, we agreed, except for the unnecessary suggestion that she's drinking too much. In the book, as Mona noted, she's capable of sustained, high-decibel foolishness with no stimulus whatsoever.
Donald Sutherland's Mr. Bennet, we thought, with his shaggy hair and beard, looks a good deal seedier than readers might expect.
We loved the Bennet daughters, including the lovely, congenitally optimistic Jane; the out-of-control Lydia and her sidekick, Kitty; and poor Mary, whom Austen somewhat cruelly made both eccentric and plain. One quibble: After a traumatic turn at the piano, Mary gets a consoling hug from her father. This is wildly out of character for him.
Ah, but what about our beloved Elizabeth, who -- with her sharp-witted commentary on her 19th-century social circle -- can feel quite modern to 21st-century high-schoolers?
Bursting with high spirits, Knightley gets off to a great start. Mona loved the "undertone of sarcasm in almost everything she said," especially her put-downs of Mr. Darcy (not all of which are from the book) at the ball that throws major characters together and kicks off the plot.
Knightley is prettier than she should be: In the beauty department, Elizabeth is supposed to play second fiddle to Jane, who is immediately singled out by that new neighbor, Mr. Bingley. Gorgeous or not, however, much of this Elizabeth's appeal comes from her lively mind and strong sense of self-worth, which is as it should be.
So far, we were all on the same page. The first father-daughter disagreement didn't crop up until we got to the part where a pompous clergyman, Mr. Collins, sets his sights on Elizabeth.
Vehemently rebuffed, Collins moves on to her friend Charlotte, who agrees to marry him. Elizabeth doesn't believe that anyone could accept such a humorless buffoon as Collins, and she lets Charlotte know it.
"I'm 27 years old. I've no money and no prospects. I'm already a burden to my parents, and I'm frightened," Charlotte tells her, voice rising. "Don't you dare judge me."
Lizzie saw this speech, correctly, as way more forceful than Austen's Charlotte would ever have let herself be. I was inclined to tolerate the change in service of a larger point. Austen's novels are sometimes criticized as frivolous works about silly women running after men. It seems important for a modern audience to understand just how serious marriage was in an age that offered women few alternatives.
Family harmony reigned, however, on most of our other reactions.
All three of us cheered Mr. Bennet's guidance to Elizabeth on the question of the clergyman's proposal. "From this day onward, you must be a stranger to one of your parents," he tells her, almost exactly in Austen's words. "Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."
You go, Dad!
We agreed that the dashing, red-coated officer, Wickham, isn't on-screen long enough to make him as sympathetic as he's supposed to be. We delighted in the scene of Mrs. Bennet in bed during a family crisis, wailing hysterically about her nerves. And we found ourselves grateful that most of the "Pride and Prejudice" plot has been left intact, even if this means that the film feels -- to the older generation, at least -- a bit too rushed throughout.
As for unnecessary changes. . .
Memo to filmmakers: Austen's Mr. Darcy would never, ever, bang the door on his way into a room, as Matthew MacFadyen does, then burble incoherently and dash out again. We liked MacFadyen well enough, but please.
And what in God's name made you plant our heroine atop a rock in the high moors, wind whipping her skirts as she stares moodily into space? She looks like a love-wracked refugee from "Wuthering Heights," not Elizabeth Bennet.
This romance-novel shot would be a small thing in itself. Yet it is a symptom of the biggest problem the three of us had with the film -- and don't think I'm not proud of my daughters for spotting it -- which is that Austen's careful pacing of the Darcy/Elizabeth romance has been thrown off.
For one thing, it starts way too soon. As with so many screen romances, there's an unmistakable erotic charge when the love interests first meet -- but this doesn't happen in the novel. "I was bothered by that right at the beginning," Lizzie said. "I was, like: What are you doing?"
All through the film, in fact, Elizabeth seems a bit emotionally ahead of where she is in the book. That windswept, out-of-character shot, for example, comes at a point where she's weighing the possibility that she was wrong about Darcy. But she hasn't yet decided, and she's certainly not mooning over the man.
One of the marvels of Austen's novel is the way Darcy and Elizabeth use words -- arguing, writing letters, talking out their differences -- to break down the barriers that divide them. But if Elizabeth is shown to have been drawn to him all along, much of the tension that precedes their eventual understanding is defused.
Lizzie, Mona and I ended up thinking that the movie's many virtues outweigh this flaw. But other Austen lovers will have to judge for themselves.
So, I finally asked the girls, how does "Pride and Prejudice" stack up compared with other book-to-screen adaptations they've seen? The Harry Potter films, say, or "The Lord of the Rings"?
"Oh, God," said Mona. There may have been an eye roll as well.
But they took the plunge.
They rated "Pride and Prejudice" at 8.5 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. Lizzie, the Tolkien reader, gave the first part of the filmed trilogy a 9 but rated the whole package as a 6. As for Harry -- well, maybe we shouldn't go there. Let's just say that Mona's 5 was the generous score.
We're the tiniest of focus groups, of course, but we think the makers of "Pride and Prejudice" should be heartened by this result. Now if they would just take our advice and make that sappy American ending disappear . . .