The role of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” cemented the matinee-idol reputations of Laurence Olivier (in the 1940 film version) and Colin Firth (in the 1995 British mini-series).
Now it’s Matthew Macfadyen’s turn, and he seems just as likely to get a significant career boost for playing the part. He isn’t as conventionally handsome or as well-known as Olivier and Firth were when they took on the role (you probably don’t remember the supporting parts he played in “The Reckoning” and a 1998 television version of “Wuthering Heights”), but he seems to understand Darcy’s romantic reticence instinctively.
He draws your attention by seeming not to want attention to be paid, and that’s essential to the role. Darcy can be arrogant, brooding, petulant and a party-pooper who flees from an invitation to join a dance (“Not if I can help it,” he says), but there’s also a mystery about him, a hint of integrity that’s not easily explained. Macfadyen captures that enigma.
Keira Knightley, best-known for playing straight woman to Johnny Depp’s clownish pirate in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” is a strong match as Elizabeth Bennet, the unmarried heroine whose prejudices keep her from recognizing the proud Darcy’s true nature. She skillfully emphasizes Elizabeth’s tomboyish boldness and lack of sham, as well as her tendency to assume the worst.
Novelist Deborah Moggach’s streamlined screenplay faithfully follows the fortunes of the five Bennet sisters, who are pushed toward the altar by their mother (Brenda Blethyn) — who worries that they’ll end up paupers in 18th century England — and occasionally rescued from disaster by a father (Donald Sutherland) who can be simultaneously clueless and protective.
Jena Malone, the only American in the cast (she was Jake Gyllenhaal’s girlfriend in “Donnie Darko”), fits right in as the most vulnerable daughter, Lydia. Rupert Friend, a busy actor who may be better-known by this time next year, is briefly impressive as the slippery Wickham. Judi Dench dominates a couple of scenes as the intolerant Catherine de Burgh, while Tom Hollander focuses on the poignant-comic myopia of Elizabeth’s eager suitor, Collins.
Directed by Joe Wright, this is the most aggressively cinematic version of “Pride and Prejudice” to date. It begins with the sun gloriously enveloping the English countryside, and it’s full of scenes choreographed for the camera (an extended ballroom episode is especially dazzling) and inventive visual juxtapositions that show off the wide-screen format.
The producers chose Wright because of his work on the 2003 mini-series, “The Last King,” and he does bring an immediacy to this two-hour film, moving briskly toward its fairy-tale finale. The lengthy Firth version sometimes stretched a slender storyline, but that’s not a problem here. There’s remarkably little narrative fat.
The 1995 version wasn’t intended for theaters, so this “Pride and Prejudice” has a shot at becoming the most successful theatrical version in 65 years. It’s far from definitive, and Austen fans may quibble with the speed with which it deals with Elizabeth’s sisters. But thanks to Macfadyen and Knightley, the love story clicks.