Today in my Jane Austen confessional, I admit that I love both recent modern adaptations of Pride and Prejudice–that is to say, both the 1995 BBC version, and the 2005 Keira Knightley version. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, particularly when it comes to casting. I was recently mulling over a glass of gin, watching the lime wedge twirl around inside of it and muttering about what would make the perfect adaptation if only I could breed the two versions and add my own bits. There was a lot of wild gesturing, especially when I got to the bits about the Darcy performances. And since that seemed to keep me distracted for a couple hours, I figure it’s probably time that I put fingers to keyboard and organized my thoughts on the matter, sans gin.
Just to make this fun, let us do this in true showdown fashion. Like Thunderdome, but with more ribbons and carriages.
Jennifer Ehle vs. Keira Knightley
Neither are the perfect Lizzie whom I pictured while reading the book. Ehle’s take on Lizzie is a little too sweet and coy. What is supposed to be a slightly cutting and wry wit is softened maybe just a tad too much. Whereas, Knightley goes too far in the opposite direction, making Lizzie a bit too moody and angry, and worst of all, not terribly clever. Appearance-wise, Knightley is almost entirely wrong. I do love her wardrobe immensely, but she is far, far too skinny for this role and would have been considered sickly looking for the time. In contrast, Ehle is much more fitting. It is only a shame that they did not allow her looks to be a little less formal. I wanted my Lizzie to have a just slightly feral look to her–not quite as buttoned up and pinned as her peers. Still, though I loved Knightley’s chemistry with her Darcy, this one hands down goes to Ehle!
Winner: Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet
Susannah Harker vs. Rosamund Pike
Sweet, shy Jane. This is not a terribly challenging role, I imagine, but it is nevertheless important to pull off the perfect tone. Lean the wrong way, and Jane acts like a simple fool, or worse, a simpering lump of clay. And this is where Harker treads ever so slightly. Both Janes are all sweetness and humility, but Harker fails to demonstrate even the mildest passion, even when Jane is hushed away in a bedchamber with her little sister. Too sedate. Pike, on the other hand, was able to achieve the coyness and gentleness of spirit, while still seeming ensnared by the idea of romance. That extra breath of life gives Pike the edge. Plus…you know. Come on, let’s just out with it: There were some beauty issues with Harker. Allow me to declare firmly that Susannah Harker is a true beauty. But the 1995 styling did her no favors–especially in the hair department–and her pregnancy during filming altered her delicate facial features into a more mannish appearance. Trust me, she has my utmost sympathies on this count. While I dislike neither Jane, I must choose but one, so here it is.
Winner: Rosamund Pike as Jane Bennet
Colin Firth vs. Matthew McFadyen
Oh boy, am I in trouble with this one! Both so tasty. Both so perfect and large and brooding. Why did I think I could choose? Why? I know most fans would scarcely blink or draw breath before shouting Firth’s name as their obvious pick. But I didn’t have ten years to see him as the “only” Mr. Darcy. I discovered the 1995 series in about 2005, about the same time I saw the new movie. So for me, they came in on equal footing. Equal handsome footing. And I always have been (and continue to be) a huge fan of both actors.
So let’s get down to dirty business (yes, please!): Firth’s take on Darcy was a little bitterer. A little colder. Even by the end of the movie he seemed slightly irked that love had tempted him. This was a choice–not an entirely bad one either. But McFadyen brought a little more warmth to the role, and appeared to resign himself to his infatuation a little easier. Lizzie didn’t have to work as hard for this more modern Darcy’s love. Which is good for Knightley, since she was a little bit of an angry fish (she and Firth would’ve never gotten together by the end of the movie, I swear!). So, do I prefer the harder Firth (hee-hee) or the sweeter McFadyen? Both are devilishly handsome. Tie. But Firth does have that whole wet shirt scene. Yum. But McFadyen has his sunrise walk through the field that just goes on and on and breaks my heart every time.
Winner: Matthew McFadyen as Mr. Darcy
Adrian Lukis vs. Rupert Friend
The role of George Wickham is entirely central to the plot in every way, yet neither version does this character proper justice. Yeah, I’m upset. We’re supposed to believe that he is a serious contender for Lizzie’s heart–at least, early on. And neither Wickham seems to be desirable or interested. Lukis’s Wickham at least seems to be vaguely flirtatious and gregarious. Of course, he has the luxury of time to let his character unfold slightly. Friend’s version of Wickham is barely in the movie (for reasons I can hardly fathom), and is just awful. I mean truly. Friend’s acting is atrocious, his character is far from amiable, and I am truly at a loss to believe that any Bennet girls would spare him a moment’s notice–even Lydia. Even in his uniform. Style-wise, neither Wickham turns my head. Lukis is a bit goofy looking, while Friend is harsh. But still, Friend is so completely useless in both performance and in regards to his nonsensically written role, that I have to give it to 1995 Wickham just by default. 2005 has no Wickham. So sayeth I.
Winner: Adrian Lukis as George Wickham
Benjamin Whitrow vs. Donald Sutherland
Oh, Mr. Bennet. You never try my nerves. This sweet and indulgent character is a delight in both versions, and neither performance fails outright. But one does seem slightly more flawed than the other. Benjamin Whitrow’s Mr. Bennet’s biggest flaw is that he seems almost a little too attentive and aware, not to mention culpable. I always saw Mr. Bennet as a little more congenially aloof, barely tolerating his irritating family, but loving them all the same. Dare I say, Whitrow seems a little more complicit in their shenanigans than I had envisioned. In contrast, Donald Sutherland goes the other way. He so removes himself from complicity that he seems cold and confused. And when Darcy charges that even Lizzie’s father has demonstrated impropriety, the audience is left wondering what the hell he’s talking about. Sutherland didn’t do anything wrong, Darcy! And that is Sutherland’s problem. Instead of seeming like a part of the Bennet ensemble, he tries to be Lizzie’s quiet hero and role model for a loving and attentive male. Whitrow’s character is more complex–just as Austen wrote him. He is adoring and sweet, but is a disaster in his own right. And for this reason, Whitrow plays a more complicated and interesting Mr. Bennet.
Winner: Benjamin Whitrow as Mr. Bennet
David Bamber vs. Tom Hollander
Mr. Collins has never let me down. He delights me from the written page and the screen. Bamber and Hollander each pull off a brilliantly creepy, if well-intentioned Mr. Collins. No serious complaints on either account. Bamber’s Mr. Collins was played a little more for comedy–as when the carriage took off and he turtled backward slightly. Hollander’s Collins, on the other hand, was so ridiculous that he could be played completely straight, and still come off as laughable. And for me, after reading the book, Hollander is exactly how I pictured Mr. Collins. The first time I saw P&P 2005, I yipped at my husband, “Look! They found my imagination’s Mr. Collins!”. So, even with respect for both, I have to give the nod to Tom Hollander and his perfect, creepy, sweet Mr. Collins.
Winner: Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins
Overall: P&P 1995 vs. 2005
On a rainy day when the world is full of woes, I will happily watch either or both versions of Pride and Prejudice. But clearly, one suffers from a huge deficit right off the bat: Pride and Prejudice is such a long and winding tale that it isn’t well-suited at all for a motion picture length. 2005 didn’t have time to develop Wickham’s hold over the Bennets, or the prolonged concern over Lydia’s disappearance. Further, they were forced to cut out some very likable roles, including Mariah Lucas, while significantly reducing others, including Col. Fitzwilliam, Sir William Lucas, and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. But let us endeavor to measure them for what they are, in spite of 2005’s constraints. Here are some notes on the two versions:
- The Meryton Ball was a strange mess in the 2005 version. The entrance of Bingley’s party was overly dramatic and ill-fitting. The whole thing seemed like an odd barn dance.
- 1995 suffered from some bad floating head syndrome. To help us recall a character’s past words, their ghostly images float and jabber. And usually the protagonist then offers a verbal retort that would have looked out of place if witnessed. This was a cheesy decision that always seems jarring and removes me from the romance of the moment.
- The 2005 Lizzie conceals her feelings for Mr. Darcy even from Jane, which makes her seem dramatically less affectionate with her family. Sorry, Lizzie, you are one of them.
- The 1995 Longbourn is maybe a little too grand and not as rural as it should be. While Mr. Bennet is a gentleman, his lower station should be a bit more pronounced.
- 2005’s costumes. I don’t even know where to start. Beautiful, yes. But why so unrealistic?
- Mrs. Bennet of 1995 probably could have tamed down the hysterics ever-so-slightly. She is written boldly enough, so not much is required. Our 90s Mrs. Bennet seems to delight in chewing on the scenery a bit too much.
- While 2005 Lizzie visits Netherfield to look after Jane, her drawing room conversation with Ms. Bingley doesn’t make much sense for her character. Why can’t she tease Mr. Darcy about his quarrels? And since when does she talk about loving to laugh? It’s a small moment, but makes little sense once dissected. The explanation, of course, is that the scene is supposed to be executed much differently and the writers cherry-picked the lines poorly.
- What the hell is Keira Knightley wearing in the last scene where she accepts Darcy at sunrise? Bad choice. Bad, bad choice.
In my dream world, some writer and producer over at the BBC would read my notes and develop a mini-series remake by 2020 incorporating the best of both worlds. Maybe Mr. Darcy can emerge from a lake with a wet shirt and then march toward Lizzie at sunrise across a frosty field. Just an idea. Until that happens, I must choose a favorite. The Longbourn Showdown has a clear winner and reining champion, which to no one’s surprise is:
Winner: 1995 Pride and Prejudice