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Keira Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Farmyards and Wet Shirts: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Updated on August 4, 2012

Are you a REAL Jane fan? Have you seen, like, every single production of Pride and Prejudice ever! (And all the other Austen book productions too, every single one!) Then I guess you will have seen the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen: but if not, then you should check it out.

What is this particular production like? Is it faithful to the book? Is it the bestest adaptation of Pride & Prejudice ever!

Well, to be honest, the answer to the last two questions is probably no, at least if you’re me. But it’s still worth seeing. I guess it depends to a certain extent on how, as a reader of Pride and Prejudice, you've visualized Elizabeth Bennet over the years. For me personally, Keira's physical appearance actually co-incides quite well with how I picture Miss Lizzy, so that helps a lot with the suspension of disbelief straight away.

Lucia.. on Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Lucia.. on Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) | Source

MacFadyen or Firth?

Unfortunately I can't bring myself to say the same of Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy. I guess some of us Colin Firth fans have been spoilt by the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice: but for some of us, no other version of Mr Darcy can quite convince as the real thing. (And it's not all just to do with the famous wet shirt and dip in the lake scene!) MacFadyen, by contrast, is all lank, floppy hair and a rather unattractive hairy chest on his slight frame. My apologies to his many fans (especially regarding his apparently stellar performances in the hit spy series Spooks – but I've never cared for that either.) He seems more moody and depressed than arrogant and proud.

This film is directed by Joe Wright and the screenplay is by Deborah Moggach, a heavyweight, respected serious writer, certainly in England. The cast is also pretty impressive overall, including performances by Judi Dench and Donald Sutherland (who is absolutely fabulous, admittedly, as Mr Bennet.)

But there's something unsatisfactory about it overall. Perhaps it's the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet, which is utterly untrue to the book. The edge and spark of their interactions underpins and counterpoints those of Elizabeth and Darcy in the book: and so in the film, except in neither case do those encounters ring true. There is a fond, loving tone, only faintly veiled by exasperation, between the elder Bennets in the film, that is nowhere to be found in the book, and one misses the hatchet fury of the mistress and the evasive, pointed civility of the master, as rendered by Austen.

The tone itself of the film may be what strikes an offkey note. Austen's novel is as much comedy as drama, and relies on intricate, highly civilised rapier-battles of conversation to drive the action and highlight the development of character and relationship. This adaptation, in contrast, relies heavily on moody stares, lowering clouds, atmosphere and pretty visuals to get its tone and message across. That message seems to mostly be, 'Take a look at what Austen would have produced if she was making pop videos!'

Is The Film Too Accurate?

Perhaps I'm a little unfair. In some respects you might even consider the film superior to the book. (If you were a crazy person, but even so, some reasonable points might be made.) I think the most significant thing where the film scores off the book is in terms of realism. Reading Austen's most famous novel, you get a wonderful sense of how educated and witty conversation could be, and how entertaining it would be to attend Regency balls.

Do you get any idea of just how boring eighteenth century life could be, even for the affluent? Of the realities of living in a working farm, even as a daughter of the big house? Does the book give you any notion or sense of the stench of the pigs or the arduous labour of the servants, of the daily existence of chamberpots and bathing in stingy amounts of barely warmed water (if you were well-off!) The film does give some hints of these things. I'm not sure it's the better for it: or at least, it's not more Austen-ish for it.

Despite my quibbles, the film certainly does have some virtues and is worth seeing – and it's not as if a true Austen fan and completist could possibly manage not to see it, anyway!


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