Jane Austen is one of the most famous British authors to ever live. Her books, which centre on young women living during the Georgian era, are filled with wit, love, realism and the question of whether marriage can ever be conceived through love in a society obsessed with social position and money. Her novel, published in 1813, is probably the most famous of her seven books. Its impact on popular culture is so far reaching that it is both impossible and mind-boggling to try and track this impact. It has been translated into a large number of languages, influenced many other authors, such as PD James who wrote a murder suspense sequel entitled Death Comes to Pemberley, and has even been adapted into a Bollywood film called Bride and Prejudice.
The 1995 adaptation of the novel is considered to be the most faithful and best, but today I am going to write about my favourite adaptation, made in 2005, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland and many other extremely talented British actors. For me, this adaptation of the novel marked a new style of period dramas, which would seemingly inspire Cary Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre and other films that aspired to inspire an interest in classic British literature in the youth market. But also the style in which the film is made has a certain realism, skirts drenched in mud, bare faces, light catching the camera as Lizzy walks home reading a book, the camera focusing on Darcy’s hand after it has touched Lizzy’s but for a moment. Techniques and styles that departed from that of the BBC and ITV versions.
I do not think it is necessary to outline the plot of the novel or film, as it is so famous that I would only bore you, my reader, and so I shall speak of what I love about the film, and why I think it is one of the best adaptations of Austen’s work.
Although the film has been criticised for make Austen’s work too streamlined and easily digestible in order to appeal to the youth market, I feel that that is one of its strengths. Although I feel that the 1995 miniseries is a masterpiece, due to its brilliant attention to detail and faithfulness to the novel; I must point out that sometimes it is not always desirable or possible to sit through an adaptation that is several hours long. Although the 2005 adaptation’s length may necessitate the truncating of certain events, it still maintains the wonderful essence of the novel. None of the character’s are hobbled by the reduction in length, they are all as real and tangible as they are in the novel. Perhaps even more so in some ways, because the film is so visually arresting.
One of my favourite scenes is at the beginning of the film, when Lizzy is walking home, the sun catching the camera lens, casting upon her a gentle glow. She looks up wistfully, her finger near her slightly upturned mouth, thinking of places and people she can only glimpse in fiction. That is the Elizabeth Bennett that I have always imagined. Practical and clever, but also a lover of that bearer of the fantastical: the novel.
Lizzy comes to life under Wright’s direction and through Knightley’s realisation of the character. She is not over glamourised, as she comes from a fairly humble background, but she is feisty and quick witted, with a wonderfully memorable presence. There is no moment where you doubt that this is really her story, the story in which she comes to realise that her prejudice needs to be cast aside in favour of fairness and not the reliance on quick judgements.
Although Jennifer Ehle is rightfully considered to be the best Elizabeth, I think that Keira Knightley comes extremely close. Her portrayal is natural and open, with just the right balance of different emotions. I particularly love how she portrays Elizabeth’s shifting emotions throughout the story, from her initial intense disdain for Darcy to her understanding that she needs to grow up and realise her own shortcomings, Darcy’s good intentions and the failings of her own beloved father. Knightley’s capacity to convey the character’s maturation through such a wonderful feminine bildungsroman, is extremely impressive. I love how she delivers her dialogue in such a fast, but controlled way, her facial expressions and body language enriching her speech. The fact that she was only twenty years old when she played Elizabeth is incredibly impressive, as her performance is so mature and varied.
Everyone else is utterly perfect in their roles, too, from future Bond girl Rosamund Pike as soft tempered Jane, with Jena Malone and Carey Mulligan, who have both become such well regarded British actresses, as the flighty and impetuous Lydia and Kitty, and Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland as Mrs and Mr Bennett. I much prefer Blethyn’s performance to Alison Steadman, who although brilliant in the part, is not quite as nuanced as Blethyn. This film was also the first in which I saw Sutherland appear, and so for a short while, until my mother set me to rights, I believed he was British because of his spot on accent. Judi Dench also wows (as always) as the haughty and condescending Lady Catherine.
But Knightley meets her perfect match in the then unknown Matthew Macfayden, who is my favourite Darcy. While I adore Colin Firth in the role, Macfayden shows Darcy’s vulnerability so poignantly, his attempts to relax his outer rigidity and class snobbery so deeply. The way in which he acts out the small gesture Wright focuses on, his hand touching Lizzy’s, and his desire to do so again, is utterly wonderful. He avoids making it hammy, and instead all his unrealised passion, his untapped desire, is there for the audience to know so intimately.
He manages to make Darcy a character that is revealed to be shy and awkward rather than actually prideful or disdainful. One who matches Lizzy in her intelligence and generosity of spirit. I adore how naturally he conveys his own faults when he confesses his love to Lizzy,
and then later, when he shows his soul deep yearning for her, his hope, kept alive like a brightly burning flame, that Lizzy can love him even half as much as loves her. He is also physically perfect for Darcy, not too handsome, but still incredibly strong featured and regal in his bearing, his eyes like blue stones that catch the light.
I have two favourite scenes in the film. The first is when Darcy and Elizabeth dance. Their movements and dialogue flow as they try to match each other in both steps and verbal sparring. The room is lit with the golden glow of many candles, and while the pair is surrounded by many other partners, you can only focus on Elizabeth and Darcy. And then they are alone in the hall, watching only each other, their senses entirely consumed by the other. They do not speak, but their attraction for one another is scorching. Her chin is raised defiantly, his eyes unable to glance away from her.
The second is when Lizzy and Darcy, after being separated for so long, reunite in the morning mist. Darcy strides towards her, his coat flowing behind him, Lizzy’s face half in light and half in shadow, her heart really open to him for the first time. When he admits his love for her, it is with deep felt apprehension and hope. Lizzy does not proclaim her love for him in a grand way, but shows she cares for his comfort by observing “Your hands are cold” after bestowing a gentle kiss on his knuckle. There is nothing showy about the moment. They are in love, and their love is a gentle thing, hard won, but realised all the same.
This is a film that should be celebrated for its legacy. Yes it changed the manner in which the heritage picture was made, but I think that that was something that was needed, and that it should not be unduly criticised. Joe Wright was correct in his realisation that he could not adapt the story in the same way as a decade before, and that a new generation needed a new Lizzy and a new Darcy. I hope that period dramas continue to capture the beauty that is so evident in this adaptation, the richness of character and the realisation of Austen’s ability to write stories that still maintain universal resonance. Because it is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged, that Austen’s work has one of the most powerful legacies in all of British literature.
This is my contribution for A Shroud of Thoughts’ 6th Annual Rule Britannia Blogathon. Please visit his blog to read about why Britain’s cinema is some of the best. And keep a stiff upper a lip when you do, won’t you?