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click to enlarge Lizzie (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew - MacFadyen) dance at the worst prom ever.
  • Lizzie (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) dance at the worst prom ever.

*Pride & Prejudice (PG)
Kimball's Twin Peak, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

Put away your expectations of Masterpiece Theatre manners and propriety and, whatever you do, avail yourself of the unexpected and considerably lively pleasures of the newest film version of Pride & Prejudice.

Director Joe Wright has seized upon the spirit of Jane Austen's novel of manners, daring to sidestep a few plot twists to keep the film fresh and new. Before the film's release NPR reported that following a sneak preview, some members of the Jane Austen Society expressed displeasure with the director's light hand. But, hey, they haven't taken their gloves off in a quarter-century.

This film was not made for the drawing-room crowd. It takes aim directly at a younger generation of viewers and succeeds miraculously at making Lizzie Bennet one of the most disarming and alluring screen heroines of the 21st century while honoring Austen's gift for dialogue.

Keira Knightley, who can't help looking like a Revlon model with her arched swan neck, almond eyes and perfect lips, has so much fun playing Elizabeth, second-born of the five Bennet sisters, that we are moved to play along.

Indeed, in the novel, Lizzie loves to laugh and appreciates the absurdities of the society she lives in. Knightley tromps through the Hartfordshire countryside in a dress that looks like it hasn't been laundered in a few months, tosses off one-liners like nobody's business, sets her elegant jaw in a pose of confidence and literally storms the screen in her portrayal of a woman who knows herself and speaks the truth.

The Bennet household is a cauldron of womanly chaos, barely watched over by a father who retreated to his den a decade or so ago, wonderfully played by a droopy and sloe-eyed Donald Sutherland. Meanwhile, fluttering about, wringing her hands over the potential marital status of her girls is Mrs. Bennet, played by a blithering Brenda Blethyn.

Lizzie's older sister, Jane (Rosamund Pike), the family beauty, is smitten with aristocrat Charles Bingley (Simon Woods), an airheaded but sweet would-be suitor whose houseguest, the mysterious Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), at once mystifies and offends Lizzie Bennet on their first meeting at the Bingleys' ball.

This scene, and another ballroom scene later in the film, are terrific exercises in what can be described only as the joy of filmmaking: long, sweeping shots of the principal players as they dart and dodge from room to room, circling gaggles of onlookers and a line of dancers who look like real people out for a rare good time.

The diminutive Bennet cousin, Mr. Collins, who has his eye on Lizzie as a future wife, is soberly and hilariously played by Tom Hollander, and Dame Judi Dench, in a wig half as tall as her entire body, is bracingly chilly as Lady Catherine, the epitome of everything distasteful about the class system of the era.

But the dance of Knightley's fiery Lizzie and Macfadyen's dour and world-weary Mr. Darcy, across the English countryside and back, is the movie's beating heart -- sexier than any contemporary bodice-ripper out there with just one solitary, sizzling kiss, spectacularly backlighted. If you're not moved to applaud at the film's uplifting finale, well, you've been spending too much time in the drawing room.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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