Knightley, in shining amour

"She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me," says the imperious Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) to his friend Charles Bingley (Simon Woods) in the latest - and one of the best - adaptations of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." The woman in question, Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley, who triumphantly comes into her own here), has overheard his indiscretion. The glint in her eye tells us she will soon have her say - not to mention her way.

And so she does, setting in motion one of the great romances in the canon. "Pride and Prejudice" has been adapted for TV five times - most notably in the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth - but only once before as a movie, 65 years ago, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier.

The new version is directed by Joe Wright, making his feature debut. He claims not to have read Austen's classic before reading the script that novelist Deborah Moggach fashioned for him, and this turns out to be a good thing: Approaching the book unburdened by the usual academic baggage, he frees it up for the screen. And he does so without ever losing sight of the emotional richness at the heart of the novel. This version is no dumbed-down escapade catering to the youth market. If young audiences respond to it at all - as I am sure they will - it will be because Wright has brought out the vigor in Austen's romance in a way that the other adaptations I've seen never quite accomplished.

Elizabeth is 20 in the movie, Darcy 28, and they look and act it - though MacFadyen's Darcy has his brooding Heathcliff side. (Garson and Olivier were 32 and 33 when their movie was shot, and their rectitude made them seem even older.) Elizabeth's four sisters, including the Bingley-smitten Jane (Rosamund Pike) and the 15-year-old cad-magnet Lydia (Jena Malone), are likewise the same ages that Austen intended. As seen from this youthful perspective, "Pride and Prejudice" has some of the same surprise that "Romeo and Juliet" does when it's cast properly. These lovers are practically kids. They seem to be experiencing their ardor for the first time.

The spiritedness is rooted by Wright's rich eye for the intricacies of romantic complication as it plays out against a landscape of country estates and formal gardens. His compositions are painterly but never static. Most adaptations of the novel have been set in the early and (from a production design standpoint) stuffier 19th century rather than, as here, in the late 18th, when Austen wrote the initial manuscript - at 21 - of what later became "Pride and Prejudice."

This period accuracy is reflected in the Bennet's rather ramshackle estate, which sometimes resembles a hippie crash pad laced with finery. Mrs. Bennet (the marvelous Brenda Blethyn), the flibbertigibbet mother of her eligible brood, understands full well that her daughters must land husbands who will elevate their station in life. Mr. Bennet (the equally marvelous Donald Sutherland), the bemused patriarch, has a special feeling for Elizabeth, the brightest of the bunch. Her loss to him, even to a prize catch like Darcy, is the basis for one of the late, great scenes in the movie, an occasion for sweet sorrow.

Austen has sometimes been criticized for a narrowness of vision - mostly by critics with no vision at all. Lurking just beneath the surface of her comedy of manners are the crushing subtleties of class distinction and the desperation of those who would rise above it. In the end, the finest achievement of Wright's movie is that it fully captures what Martin Amis, writing on "Pride and Prejudice," said of Austen: "Money is a vital substance in her world; the moment you enter it you feel the frank horror of moneylessness, as intense as the tacit horror of spinsterhood." All that, and a great love story, too. Grade: A

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements.

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