It's one of the most beloved books in the English language, yet Pride and Prejudice had been made into a feature just once, in 1940, with Greer Garson as Lizzy and Laurence Olivier as Darcy. Two BBC television productions, one airing in 1980, the other in 1995, suggest the story has been in constant production, but wondrously enough, Joe Wright's superb version of Jane Austen's classic romance is, quite literally, a delightful surprise.

Everything about this charming film beguiles, from Keira Knightley's exuberant turn in the lead role-she deserves an Oscar nomination for best actress-to Sarah Greenwood's intelligent production design evoking the class distinctions at the heart of the 18th-century novel. A young director, Wright not only coaxes fresh performances from veterans like Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn (Lizzie's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet), he uses his camera inventively, choreographing the dance scenes with élan and employing two or three cinematic tricks that adroitly capture the mood of key scenes.

No one deserves more accolades for Pride & Prejudice than screenwriter Deborah Moggach, who like Wright cut her teeth working on TV miniseries. The joy of the novel lies in Austen's style and wit, which Moggach manages to preserve without attempting to reproduce the narrative too precisely. Her script captures the spirit of the book because she allowed herself to extemporize while, of course, respecting the original.

"You can't reproduce Austen's fiercely wonderful dialogue in its entirety," Moggach says about the hazards of adaptation. "But we've kept quite a lot of it... People love the book so much that they know it word for word."
The novel may be the model for romantic comedy, but Austen was a shrewd social commentator and, as Wright points out, one of the first British realists. Lizzie can't hope for any share in the estate of her squire father; like her four sisters, she must acquire a suitable husband or face spinsterhood. Indeed, the enterprise of the Bennet household is dedicated entirely to the institution of marriage, a matter underscored by the film's subplots involving sister Jane (Rosamund Pike), who falls for the likeable aristocrat Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), and sister Lydia (Jena Malone), who elopes with the conniving Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend).

In such a world, money rather than love is the motive behind most liaisons, and the filmmakers make this evident without lapsing into didacticism, avoiding the temptation to give Lizzie too modern a sensibility. She is well aware of the risks she takes for herself and her family by turning down an offer for her hand from her unctuous cousin, Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander), who stands in line to inherit the Bennet family home. She also understands, despite her own revulsion, the decision of her older and plainer friend, Charlotte (Claudie Blakley), to accept a similar proposal from Collins.

But the beauty of the book (to point out the obvious) lies in Austen's carefully drawn characters, not her grasp of period politics and economics, and the movie doesn't disappoint on this score. Knightley brings the right combination of independence and vulnerability, impudence and humility, to the role; she can act kittenish, determined, mortified, remorseful and smitten-Lizzie's emotional declension as she discovers that her own pride and prejudice has blinded her to Darcy's better qualities-and manages to toss off literary lines ("Believe me, men are either eaten up with arrogance or stupidity") with aplomb.

The manly Matthew Macfadyen manages to make Darcy dour but not pompous; he's more shy than supercilious. His silent longing for Lizzie will set hearts fluttering. Sutherland and Blethyn nearly steal the movie as the Bennets, they're so perfectly suited to their parts. Hollander should also expect an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for his interpretation of the condescending Collins, providing a comic foil to the story's various love affairs. Indeed, the cast is so superb, Dame Judi Dench (the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourg) is almost overshadowed.

Pride & Prejudice is unapologetically sentimental, but Wright and his team brought sense and sensibility to the project-something Jane Austen, no doubt, would appreciate.

-Rex Roberts