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Knightley, in shining amour

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"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.

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