I had almost given up on the big screen this holiday season. Nothing’s living up to the hype. Nothing’s making me feel nine bucks was well invested.

Well, here’s one that does.

Rosamund Pike, with very few lines, almost steals Pride and Prejudice from Keira Knightley.

For one thing, in the role of Jane, the older sister in this family of girls-to-be-married-off, she wasn’t overly made up like a supermodel like Knightley was in every scene. She remained a natural beauty, and one with a complicated interior life. And she handles her big scenes beautifully. I wished the film had been another 3o minutes longer to give us more time with this character, and I hope other directors will notice her and cast her in the lead of something as worthwhile as this. (I note with a shudder that her other 2005 appearance is in Doom. What a waste.)

But this is, of course, an adpatation of a Jane Austen novel so beloved that any variation from the text causes purists to cry out in dismay. And since Wright strays quite significantly on certain points in order to compress this large story into two hours, I can’t begrudge him how much time Pike is offscreen. He and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have done an admirable job.

But Pike, wow… there’s something bewitchingly broken about her face… something that speaks of experience, deep thought, and pain, which makes her eventual joy all the more exciting. Knightley, for all of her tough talk, still doesn’t have the face of someone who’s been through things, and that weakens her effectiveness as a lead.

But I can’t say Knightley didn’t win me over. She’s got the gumption of young Winona Ryder, and she does that romantic hesitancy oh so well … that blissful expression that makes it painfully obvious to anyone watching that she’s swooning every time she looks at Matthew MacFadyen’s Mr. Darcy. She’s a pleasure, and a strong enough actress to carry the movie, in spite of the strengths she hasn’t yet developed. (And isn’t it refreshing to have a period piece in which the heroine doesn’t succeed because of overpowering cleavage?)

The only real problem with Knightley in this film is the way that, no matter how hard the rain and the wrongdoing pound on her, her makeup is always picture-perfect, and that taints an otherwise winning performance. I just keep expecting her to turn to the camera and hold up some kind of moisturizer or eyeliner and seductively tell us what brand to buy. Not that she’s painful to look at… heck, I’d probably run out and buy some of that moisturizer myself if she told me to. But it just seemed out of place in this world, like she was some kind of superhero whose power was to be camera-ready no matter what the circumstances.

MacFayden’s quite strong as well. Hard to believe this is his first big movie role. (He was in The Reckoning, but didn’t have much chance to make an impression there.)

And Donald Sutherland, playing a very different Mr. Bennett than the book gives us, is also very fine as an emotional, weary old man who dearly loves his smartest, boldest daughter.

Joe Wright’s direction is invigorating. Who is this guy? Give him another good script! He keeps the camera moving gracefully about these crowded ballrooms and elaborate houses. I wanted to rewind certain scenes just to marvel at how effortlessly the camera glides from room to room, through windows, and across the glorious countryside. He uses close-ups in ways that remind me of Peter Jackson, and that gives us an intimate knowledge of these characters so that we care about them, whereas many other period pieces of this sort keep us at arms’ length.

My favorite of his many surprising segues and decisions came when Knightley is sitting in a swing and slowly turning, winding up the ropes and then twirling. We see through her eyes as the property around her rushes past. Every time she turns, time has passed, the seasons change, and at last we arrive in a new chapter. Simple, inventive, and beautifully executed.

The soundtrack, reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s The Piano, is also a strong point.

The only things that made me wince were Brenda Blethyn’s typically hysterical performance, which was too comical and exaggerated, out of balance with everything else; the miscasting of Jena Malone as a hyperactive, giggling girl; and Judi Dench’s one-note wickedness.

This territory has been explored so many times before that it’s becoming hard to review such a film fairly. It has a “been-there, done that” quality to it (and the appearance of Dench doesn’t help matters here). Thus, all the more reason to praise Wright for making such familiar stuff seem fresh and engaging. I’d gladly see this film again, and take friends and family along. How long has it been since I’ve said that about a movie?

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