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A radiant take on a classic love story

'Pride & Prejudice' is an exhilarating affair

Everyone in the bouncy and whooshing new version of ''Pride & Prejudice" appears to be having a great time. Everybody except Mr. Darcy. But he'll come around. Jane Austen's novel has been rejiggered into a jaunty romantic comedy that leaves us as incandescently happy as its characters.

That sort of excitement is what Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and her sisters dream of. Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) just wants her five girls married off to men who can support the hell out of them. Love is a luxury the family can't afford. But the Bennet girls, for the most part, are idealists in spite of their mother. They must get it from their taciturn and protective father, played by the sterling Donald Sutherland in his least evil part in years. The girls take their cues from him while running from their breathless, batty mum.

Rosamund Pike, as Jane, the eldest, fairest Bennet daughter, and Simon Woods, as Mr. Bingley, the unassumingly rich, magnificently carrot-topped whippersnapper who falls for her, could be two besotted freshmen at any college. They leave each other and the movie in a tizzy. Their crush, of course, is complicated by the matters of caste and propriety that threaten to break them up.

The spirit of this version feels fresher and more youthful than previous editions. The youngest Bennets, Kitty (Carey Mulligan) and Lydia (Jena Malone), are more cuckoo than ever. Malone is particularly hilarious as the most Southern-sounding Bennet and the one least likely to remain a virgin.

Chastity is, needless to say, the norm. (The kiss apparently hasn't yet been invented, but nuzzling noses is very hot.) But a sense of sex permeates the decorous times. Giddy with lust, Kitty and Lydia ricochet around the sets like a pinballs. (I do wish there were more of Talulah Riley's prim and plain Mary, the philosophical heart of the book.)

Elizabeth, of course, is the most idealistic of all the Bennet girls. Famously, she meets her match in the humorless aristocrat Darcy, whom Matthew Mac-fadyen plays with an inviting blend of self-consciousness, snobbery, and righteous exasperation. (He steps nicely out of the long shadow of the universe's most famous Darcy, Colin Firth, who played the role in a 1995 BBC version, while bringing with him a whiff of John Cusack. In fact, a sequence toward the end could come out of a climactic scene from ''Say Anything.")

On hand to torment Elizabeth is the supercilious Lady Catherine, Darcy's aunt. The role falls to Judi Dench, whose skin is tight and tanned and whose hair has been piled up and swept back into a great gray mane that makes her look so entertainingly ferocious she could be the MGM lion.

Austen's story is timeless and masterfully engineered, but it isn't foolproof. Elizabeth and Darcy's animosity must be real, but not so intense that the eventual convergence of their feelings leaves you cold. Knightley and Macfadyen manage these hairpin turns of perception like stock-car champions. After he rebuffs her invitation to dance at a ball and then insults her -- unaware that she's well within earshot -- Elizabeth writes him off as a snob. Actually, the film has her do a great deal more than what I recall in Austen's book. She politely tells him off, then saunters away, exhaling in a small triumph of confidence.

A masterpiece of choreography, that ball kicks the picture into an exuberant high gear that lasts for the rest of the film. Using Deborah Moggach's sharp and economic adaptation as a road map, director Joe Wright is as much a traffic cop in this sequence as he is a gleaner of his characters' states of mind. Elsewhere, Austen's book feels liberated from the page instead of having been dragged from it, as has been the case with other adaptations. (That enjoyable if academic version of ''Mansfield Park" from 1999 comes to mind.)

This ''Pride & Prejudice" is not the ultra-faithful and comprehensive emotional experience that the beloved BBC adaptation was (known throughout the world as the ''Colin Firth one," and featuring the luminous Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth). Wright's is certainly the most exhilaratingly made. He and his exceptional crew know their Robert Altman. The hand-held camerawork is catch as catch can with the action. Many shots seem to be happening on the fly (as with Altman, that's a grand illusion: the framing is impeccable), and some conversations become an aural latticework.

Even better is how Wright seems to have encouraged his cast to watch everyone and everything, using their faces to enrich the written story. That seems like acting 101, but even the extras seem in on the gawking here. The movie's first half is worth seeing a second or third time just to catch what all the major cast members are doing with their faces and where they put their eyes.

In this regard, no one in ''Pride & Prejudice" is busier than Knightley. Several scrapbooks full of Kodak moments could be filled with her gallery of rolled eyes, devilish grins, and angrily furrowed brows. Knightley boldly creates Elizabeth's most modern-seeming incarnation. She's a coltish tomboy, but she hasn't given up on girlishness. She just refuses to entertain Dream House Barbie aspirations, which has been true of the character since Austen came up with her in 1813. The actress just brings out more of her edge.

With that fearsomely square jaw of hers, Knightley will never be mistaken for a straight-up glamour puss. (In my dreams, she'd have Elizabeth Bennet smoking in the girls' room.) But those of us who put ourselves through ''King Arthur" and ''Domino" looking for signs of a great actress can leave ''Pride & Prejudice" ecstatic. We finally get what we paid for.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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