DIRECTOR: Joe Wright
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen
IMDB SCORE: 7.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 86%
SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️ I love this film and definitely think it’s rewatchable!
✔️ I also definitely want to fuck the cast. Keira Knightley is beautiful as always and Matthew Macfadyen is seriously fuckable in this movie!
✔️ I’m going to give it a mark for sex positivity. Sex isn’t mentioned explicitly but enthusiastic consent for marriage and making good relationship decisions is certainly a big topic, as is disrespectful treatment of women, so I’m happy to say it’s sex positive!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test! I mean, the named women talk about balls and ribbons and dancing, rather than directly talking about men, but it’s still a pass!
✔️ And, drum roll, I’m going to give it a mark for inspiring fantasies as Darcy is a fantasy man for so many people, including me. 5/5!!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £2.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
I have a very strong memory of watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with my mother. We were boarding in the granny annex of a friend of the family as we were in the process of moving house and I remember that the apartment didn’t have a separate living space so we had to watch TV sat on my mother’s bed. Can you imagine the decadence of being allowed to stay up longer than your little sisters to watch a programme such as Pride and Prejudice and to watch it while snuggled up in bed with your mother? It was literally heaven! I suspect that we were watching a re-run when I was 12 in 1997, rather than the original showing in 1995 when I was 10, but this was still my first exposure to Jane Austen, to Pride and Prejudice, and to Mr Darcy. I never looked back…
In case you need a summary, Pride and Prejudice is a story about marriage and status. Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley, two highly eligible bachelors, cause a stir in the village where the Bennet family lives, simply by moving there and being single. Mr Bingley soon falls for Jane, the oldest and most beautiful Bennet, but no one likes the arrogant and brooding Mr Darcy, especially not after he insults Elizabeth. After spending more time together, Mr Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth but manages to propose in such a hamfisted fashion that she is even more insulted and refuses. This isn’t the end of the story, however, and events soon occur that enlighten Elizabeth as to Darcy’s true personality. Rather than the arrogant wanker she suspected, he proves to be a good and gentle man and, of course, they end up getting married.
And after such an indulgent introduction, I fell head over heels for the story and the drama and the style of Pride and Prejudice, going straight out to read the book and devouring as much Jane Austen as I could, but I never really got the whole Darcy thing. Or rather, I was consciously caught up in the fuss that surrounded the character ever since Colin Firth stepped out of that lake with his wet shirt and brooding look, but I always felt that I was crushing on Darcy because that’s what everyone did rather than because he particularly set me aflame.
That was until I saw the 2005 movie version. Oh. My. Gosh! Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy changed absolutely everything and I honestly don’t think I couldn’t love him more!
As a rule, I tend to enjoy most retellings of this story, even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! And I while like the chemistry of the Firth-Ehle pairing in the BBC version, the difference here is that I love the Knightley-Macfadyen combination. The Pride and Prejudice story has been told so many times in so many ways that you wouldn’t think that it would be possible to create such a radically new perspective, but this feels all new to me.
The movie is often unfavourably compared to the 1995 BBC version but I much prefer it. For me, it has everything that a British period drama needs to have – elegant and overcrowded dances and balls in great halls, walks in libraries, enviable dresses, plus an odd chicken walking around here and there – but I love it because I believe it. I believe that Mrs Bennet spends every moment plotting the love lives of her daughters. I believe that Bingley is wholly in love with Jane, but I also believe that he is stupid enough to persuaded that Jane’s love isn’t real when his friend warns him off. He is so sweet and guileless and trusting that he would just nod along with his friend’s recommendation and break his own heart rather than believe his feelings.
More importantly, I love this film because I believe in Darcy. I believe that he is completely overwhelmed with his feelings for Elizabeth and just doesn’t know how to handle them, which, when combined with an obvious social awkwardness, creates that famous diffidence and aloofness that makes him appear so proud.
And I love them as a couple because I am cheering them on from the very first second that they lay eyes on each other. They are clearly in love with each other from that very, very first second! It’s why they keep glancing at each other; it’s why Darcy’s remarks about how ‘tolerable’ Elizabeth is sting so much, and it’s why he stumbles over his words and phrases when talking to and about her. He wants her. He wants her so much that he can’t think straight and it is just intoxicating! He is so obviously trying to impress her, trying to make up for accidentally insulting her but keeps failing and just making it worse. As the New York Times describes, ‘the disparity between his diffidence and her forthrightness makes the lovers’ failure to connect more than a delaying tactic to keep the story churning forward; it’s a touching tale of misread signals.’
Because Elizabeth is no better – I had never really associated the Pride of the title with her, but in this version it is definitely her wounded pride that causes her to keep toying with Darcy and teasing him, never letting him get the better of her again. But in this version of the character, I really, truly believe that he is worthy of Elizabeth’s love and I completely understand why she falls for him. In other versions, I didn’t really get it. Was it because he had a big house? Because he saved her family’s reputation? All good reasons but not exactly ones to inspire such romantic longing.
But I do long for them to get together. Macfadyen’s secret finger flex after he holds Knightley’s hand makes me gasp like I imagine everyone did when Firth started wandering around in wet shirts, but this is just the beginning. By the end, when Mr Bennet tearfully exclaims that Elizbeth really does love him, I’m sobbing along with him as I can’t contain my happiness.
So what is so different about Macfadyen’s Darcy and this film to cause such a huge change in my emotional reaction?
Well, I think it comes down to the fact that I had previously really struggled with the idea of Mr Darcy as a dream romantic icon, and this was made worse because I see in Firth’s portrayal everything that I don’t like about the Darcy character.
In my opinion, Firth’s Darcy is arrogant; he is brusque and offhand and thinks he is better than everyone else. He snubs Elizabeth because he genuinely thinks that he is above that kind of company and hasn’t bothered to get to know her at all. Firth’s Darcy is as surprised as anyone to find himself in love with Elizabeth and his proposal feels selfish somehow, as if he hasn’t thought of her opinion at all and just presumes she’ll accept as he doesn’t think she can get any better. Firth’s Darcy is every one of those horrendous but beautiful fuckboys who don’t treat women nicely because they know they don’t have to. Women swoon at his feet regardless of how he behaves. Until Elizabeth, of course. Then he has to learn to be a better person because that is what Elizabeth demands it of him.
In contrast, Macfadyen’s Darcy feels like a good person all along, just one who doesn’t know how to show his emotions: ‘Matthew Macfadyen finds a human dimension in the taciturn landowner Fitzwilliam Darcy that was missing in earlier, more conventionally heroic portrayals. Mr. Firth might have been far more dashing, but Mr. Macfadyen’s portrayal of the character as a shy, awkward suitor whose seeming arrogance camouflages insecurity and deep sensitivity is more realistic.’
Interestingly, I prefer Firth’s second version of Darcy – Mark Darcy in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary – although he is still no Macfadyen! That Darcy seems like a middle ground between the arrogant and the socially awkward, and I am fascinated by the trend, because there is a definite trend in how Darcy is presented and received. Honestly, delving into the history of Darcy and his place in popular culture has proved to be my favourite piece of research for this blog so far!
Darcy is undoubtedly an archetypal romantic hero. He is supposed to be exactly what women want and a poll in the early 2000s revealed that ‘1,900 women across the generations voted for Mr Darcy as the man they would most like to go on a date with.’ And that is what fascinates me – ‘across the generations.’ Why does Darcy appeal to everyone? And is every generation of women attracted to the same Darcy?
I read an absolutely incredible article about the history of Mr Darcy that I would strongly recommend that you read as I am about to essentially paraphrase and quote from it, but it proposes that Austen originally wrote Darcy at a time when masculinity and the role of a gentleman was in flux; a circumstance not that dissimilar to the current social upheaval prompted by #MeToo, discussions of toxic masculinity, and the next generation of feminists. Could this be why I find the most recent versions of Darcy more attractive and more true to my reading of the novel?
Austen wrote Darcy as a character who looked forward – he was a Victorian man with Victorian masculine sensibilities at a time when more Georgian gentility still dominated society. He has a ‘serious moral tone and a strong sense of purpose,’ which contrasted with Bingley’s ‘eighteenth-century gentleman’s refinement and easy, sociable manners.’ Darcy is straightforward, ‘paying more attention to “the promptings of his inner self” than to the “dictates of social expectations.”’
It could be argued that Darcy was a very early example of the struggles of toxic masculinity. He works so hard to maintain his position as a man and a gentleman at a time when it is not clear how best to be both, and this conflict causes him to be rude to, well, everyone. His status as a gentleman is ‘complicated by the lack of ease required to develop the manners and conduct that will recommend him to others.’ In the traditional sense of the word, he is a gentleman by birth but not in action and, until Elizabeth, this had never been tested. Elizabeth even directly attacks his identity as a gentleman when refusing his proposal – ‘You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ No wonder it shakes him to his core!
But such is Austen’s genius that she is able to demonstrate both the struggles of this change in requirement of a gentleman and the reasons why such a change is necessary. Not only is Mr Bingley an adorably laughable character, exemplifying the superficial nature of gentlemanly behaviour, but Austen also wrote Mr Wickham as ‘Darcy’s foil’ – a reminder to both Elizabeth and those reading the book that ‘pleasant, easy manners alone are not an adequate measure of masculinity.’ Wickham may be the perfect gentleman but he is a cruel and manipulative man. Instead, Austen presents Darcy as a modern man and a more attractive option. He is not frivolous; he is measured and moral and good.
But this version of Darcy, the straightforward masculine man who struggles with knowing how he should present himself in a changing world, got lost for a long time in modern representations of him.
It is Lawrence Olivier in 1940 who is credited for being one of the earliest diffident and arrogant versions of Darcy, and his character progressed from there until Darcy had become a more brutal romantic hero and was almost an example of the weakness and inconsistency of women. We yearn for ‘dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and then later find ourselves falling in love with’ only to feign surprise when they ‘turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.’ Fuckboys; our love for Darcy is what leads us to fall for fuckboys. And to fall for Heathcliff and Edward Cullen and James Bond and Mr Big and all manner of other emotionally unavailable men who treat women like crap. This Darcy may be a fantasy for women, but perhaps not one that we should want so much!
In a somewhat scathing attack written in 2004, the year before this movie came out, Cherry Potter suggested that ‘when society was deeply patriarchal, men like Darcy really were severe, remote and all-powerful’ and women had no choice but to marry them because they needed protection. But now, she worries about what our obsession with Darcy says about women and what message it sends to men: ‘As modern women with our wealth of relationship experience and all the benefits brought about by feminism, we should know better.’
But but but but…that’s not the Darcy that Austen wrote and that’s not the Darcy in this fabulous 2005 movie!
Darcy is strong and sexy and powerful but he is also respectful and honourable. Compare how he reacts to Elizabeth’s refusal of his proposal with Mr Collins’s response. Darcy defends himself against her erroneous views about him but then leaves her in peace. He only approaches the subject again when he has a glimmer of hope that her opinions might have changed, and even then promises to never speak of it if his hope is mistaken. He believes her no! I cannot tell you how important and admirable that is. Mr Collins, on the other hand, assumes that Elizabeth is playing a game to tease him, as women are so tricksy, and doesn’t believe her, asking again more ardently and forcefully and not letting go.
Stealing the words of the Happy Feminist, our fantasies for Mr Darcy have ‘nothing to do with deep down wanting a patriarchal, dominating or controlling man.‘ Instead, Darcy represents that guy we admire, the one we never thought we could get, but who it turns out thinks as highly of us as we do of him. He’s the unrequited love who really does love us back, the extraordinary writer who loves what we write, the brilliant colleague who asks our advice; he’s the intoxication and joy that comes with realising someone you look up to thinks of you as an equal: ‘The fantasy is to win the utter respect, admiration and passion of a man of great intelligence and great character, especially a man who is not easily won.’ Oh, be still my beating heart…!
And this leads on to another aspect of Joe Wright’s film that I think is absolutely perfect. Keira Knightley is beautiful, there is no doubt about that, but Elizabeth Bennet shouldn’t be. She was intelligent and witty and attractive because of all of these non-physical features but Knightley’s beauty shifts the balance: ‘Her radiance so suffuses the film that it’s foolish to imagine Elizabeth would be anyone’s second choice.’ But I loved this because it allows Elizabeth and Darcy to be equals again. Darcy’s good looks are never described in the novel and he is a figure of attraction because of his wealth and status. Making Darcy gorgeous while Elizabeth remains plain is just mean. (And misogynistic!)
Instead, they are equals, each bringing different strengths to their partnership – Darcy has higher social status and greater wealth, but Elizabeth is definitely emotionally superior and arguably more intelligent too. It is ‘a marriage of equals.’ And, of course, that is the secret. The mutual admiration between Darcy and Elizabeth is what I have always longed for in a partner, and is a part of my own relationship that never stops bringing me joy.
And that is why I love this movie and why I cry with happiness that Elizbeth and Darcy are able to finally understand each other and see each other and love each other. This version of Pride and Prejudice is a remainder that ‘the best romances are between strong people who appreciate each other’s strength.’ The best romances are between people who admire each other and value each other and understand each other.
And that is why Darcy is still my ultimate romantic hero. Not the brutal, distant and brooding icon, but the real man. He is far from perfect and he would be a hard won prize but, damn, he would be worth it…
Next week: Showgirls