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The Timelessness of Jane Austen’s Classic Romance

By Madelyn M. Ritrosky-Winslow

The number one question being asked about the new Pride and Prejudice is:  How does this 2005 version with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen compare with the 1995 version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle?   

It turns out to be a difficult question to answer.  The adored BBC/A&E version is consistently a popular offering on the A&E cable network, has loads of fans, and has inspired numerous writers to create endless variations on Jane Austen’s classic tale.  The most notable is Helen Fielding with Bridget Jones’s Diary, but there is lots of well-written Austen “fan fiction” out there.  Much of that has been inspired in whole or in part by the 1995 miniseries and Firth’s Darcy, which some have called the “definitive” Darcy. 

The fact that one was produced as a miniseries and the other as a theatrical film also makes a direct comparison a bit tricky.  Then there are those who are Austen purists, that is, fans (this includes the fans who are scholars) who are concerned with how faithful an adaptation is to Austen’s original plot, dialogue, themes, and characterizations.

Now that I have seen Working Title’s Pride and Prejudice (distributed by Focus Features, Universal’s specialty film division), I have made a decision.  One does not have to come down on one side or the other.  It is certainly possible to appreciate aspects of each one for different reasons, sometimes for the same reasons.  Each has its share of compelling elements.  Sometimes that means a direct comparison highlights one version as more compelling than the other for a specific aspect of the production.

Finally, these two adaptations offer us slightly different takes on the timeless romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.  Both offer romantic and appealing images – hauntingly beautiful for those of us interested in a good love story.  And if you like romance – the kind that is serious, with characters who must learn to come together, yet uplifting, with plenty of lighter touches and a happy ending – then either of these Pride and Prejudice offerings just might enthrall you. 

So, a few compelling elements of the new film:  dynamic camera movement, such as the film’s opening sequence or at the Netherfield ball; visually interesting lighting in certain scenes, such as the candlelight with close-ups when Lady Catherine confronts Lizzy; the cluttered mise-en-scene of the Bennet home, for example, the breakfast scene when Mr. Collins proposes to Lizzy; unusual time transitions, like day becoming night around Lizzy’s reflection in a mirror; and a less annoying characterization of Mrs. Bennet.    

Two compelling scenes because of their highly romantic qualities are the unplanned sunrise meeting of Lizzy and Darcy out in a field and the closing scene of a married Darcy and Lizzy kissing at night on Pemberley’s balcony.  In the former, Darcy keeps walking and walking in long shot, toward Lizzy and the camera, through the misty dawn air.  When he is standing before her and tells her that she has “bewitched” him, “body and soul,” he is opening his heart and soul to her utterly.  Darcy is at his most vulnerable (and sexy) here – and Macfadyen does his best acting because he is able to convey this in opposition to the restrained countenance that is Darcy for much of the story, yet it still feels true to the character.

The new film takes a few more liberties with Austen’s plot than the miniseries does, but both added and changed scenes for conciseness, dramatic effect, director/writer inspiration, and for enticing contemporary audiences.  With the new film’s obviously shorter running time than a miniseries, certain plot elements were minimized (such as Wickham’s appearances) and some minor characters were eliminated. 

As for the characterizations of the lead couple, there are subtle differences but I think both work.  Knightley’s performance gives, perhaps, a slightly more independent aura to Lizzy Bennet.  Macfadyen’s performance gives a somewhat more somber cast to Mr. Darcy.  I think that Colin Firth’s Darcy moves a bit more in his emotions, from a more condescending attitude early on to a freer expression of happiness at the Pemberley scenes.  But these differences simply make for the directors’, writers’, and actors’ varying interpretations in bringing beloved characters from the book page to the screen. 

One of the primary differences in the interpretations of Mr. Darcy, a romantic hero who has had generations of women swooning over him since 1813, is the physicality that the miniseries dynamically imparts to the character.  It is there in the 2005 film, but in nowhere near the same degree.  We see Firth as Darcy fencing, horseback riding several times, playing billiards, striding through hallways with dogs, taking a bath, and, most famously, diving in a pond and then walking in that wet shirt.  And it’s the eyes, the intense focus, look of desire, and visible transformation in them. 

Macfadyen as Darcy gets to gallop through the woods on horseback at night, pace outside the Bennet house, get soaked by rain, kneel with Lizzy in just a white shirt and breeches, and, most impressively, he gets that dawn stride toward Lizzy.  In either case, because the character is taciturn, his romantic appeal is expressed through his body, his actions, and his eyes.  In general, Macfadyen’s gazes seem less intense but still full of quiet emotion. 

So if all this romance appeals to you, then go see the new Pride and Prejudice in the theater and go rent the 1995 Pride and Prejudice at the video store.  The new Pride and Prejudice opens in only select theaters in large cities on November 11, but then moves to a wider release on November 23, 2005, for the longer Thanksgiving weekend.        

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