Pride and Prejudice Revisited (2005)

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Pride and Prejudice Revisited
Keira Knightley Meets her Match

By Karl Rozemeyer

“I think Pride and Prejudice you can set anywhere. It is about things that are as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago. It is about growing up. It is about making mistakes. It is about falling in love for the first time. It’s about a million different things. You can see that you can set this story anywhere because you have got Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood version, you’ve got Bridget Jones, you’ve got so many different versions of this story. I think that it doesn’t matter where you are from, we all need a little bit of romance. So, why not.”
—Keira Knightley

The contrast in personality between Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen is as marked in person as it is on screen in their roles as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in the latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice (Focus Features). The maturity of Knightley’s comments belie her age: the star of Bend it Like Beckham, King Arthur and Pirates of the Caribbean is just twenty years old. And yet she has an unmistakable youthful effervescence. Wide-eyed and upbeat, she gushes hyperboles (“Fantastic!”) and expletives (“Fuck!”) in almost equal amounts. MacFadyen is eleven years her senior. Despite his closely cropped hair (“I am doing this film in Ireland and I wanted it to be shorter”) he is every bit the tall, dark and somewhat brooding handsome gentleman that one associates with the infamous Mr. Darcy. Says Knightley of her co-star: “We go for this quite androgynous look in our leading men at the moment which is lovely. Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom. Beautiful! (They’re) absolutely lovely but it is terribly romantic to have that big guy. He is a bit of a Richard Burton-type…And what is incredibly romantic is that you have got this big man but he is so vulnerable, as well. And it is so rare to see that in cinema.”

Dark kohl framing her eyes, Knightley is glamorously dressed in black with a jangle of arm bracelets that shake noisily every time she gesticulates. Gone is her preferred choice of grunge jeans-and-t-shirts and heavy boots. “That’s because I have had hair and make-up! Fantastic!” she exclaims. But her personal sense of dress and style is underscored when she reveals what items she took away from the late 18th-century set of the film: “I got my stripy stockings—which were my big thing. I wanted stripes for Elizabeth! I was really obsessed about stripes. And (director) Joe (Wright) was like: ‘Well, you can’t have every single one of your dresses striped but I will give you stripy stockings’. So all my stockings in the film where striped. So I got those. What else did I get? I got the boots. Lizzie always wears boots. Those green kind of boots.”

Dressed in a light pink shirt, MacFadyen is more hesitant in his speech than Knightley and has a distinct reserve, keeping his sentences short and to the point. Even his filmography is quieter than Knightley’s. He describes the highlights of his career thus far as: “Probably when I played Benedict in this Much Ado About Nothing play tour. And I did a TV film called Warriors which was kind of a first break on telly and that was a film about the soldiers in Bosnia and the war there. That was a highlight. I have had a lot of nice jobs. I have been very lucky…And I did a play at the National with Michael Gambon recently.”

Taking on the roles of two of the most beloved characters of the English novel tradition had to be daunting for Knightley and MacFadyen but both were aware that they were also taking on parts that had already been defined by actors before them. Mr. Darcy has been portrayed famously by Sir Laurence Olivier and more recently in the BBC TV series by Colin Firth. “I was a little bit daunted,“ concedes MacFadyen, “But like any part that is well known. I felt quite flattered. I am in very good company.’” However, he had neither read the book nor seen Firth’s performance before filming began: “A lot of people asked at the outset how it was going to be different from Colin Firth’s (portrayal). But I didn’t have any kind of frame of reference.” He does admit that this was a conscious decision. “Although I didn’t sit down and think to myself: ‘I am not going to do this (research).’ I just kind of didn’t bother. My wife was pregnant at the time. I just couldn’t sit and watch six hours. Because it is our screenplay we are shooting. It is different. And I had an experience with that. I did a Trollope (adaptation) on the telly, a thing called The Way We live Now. We had a brilliant script written by Andrew Davies and I started reading the book and it said the character I was playing was black-haired and green-eyed and whippet thin. I just thought this is not useful because you are not shooting the book.” And although he has never met Firth he claims to be a big fan of his work: “I saw Tumbledown, a film he did of the Falklands War. I had kind of seen a lot of him as I was growing up and before I went to drama school.”

Knightley’s affair with the role of Elizabeth Bennett, by contrast, had begun when she was just a child: “I read the book a lot. I’ve been obsessed by the book since I was about seven. I had all the Austen series on book tape and I used to listen to it on a loop. And I was obsessed by the BBC version when I was about eleven, maybe ten. And then I read the book finally when I was about fourteen and got obsessed again. Then when I was offered the role, I read it. I was terrified of doing it because I had been really obsessed with the BBC version I thought I was going to do an absolute copy of Jennifer Ehle’s performance and that would be awful. I mean, she was fantastic but it would be awful if I tried to copy her.” The prospect of taking the part weighed heavily on Knightley: she made notes and even was so terrified that before shooting had begun she had learned the entire script, her part and everybody else’s by heart.

1105_pride_02.jpgKnightley feels Elizabeth Bennett is a universal character for all women: “It is partly because she is a character—I’m making a huge generalization here but I am assuming—that every woman would want to be. Which is sort of this incredibly passionate, clever, witty, intelligent, just amazing being but also somebody who seems so annoying. And you want to her kick up the ass and just say: ‘Oh, sort it out!’. So she is flawed, really flawed. You can imagine her going into a room and being slightly nervous about it, thinking: ‘I feel really stupid right now’…I think you see yourselves in all (Austen’s) characters, all her strong women.” And yet for Knightley Elizabeth Bennett embodies the unattainable—characteristics that she can only aspire to: “She is the sort of person (who) comes up with all the put downs that I always think: ‘I should have said that!’ She is the person who can come up with it really quickly. So I think she is still the person I want to be and I will never get there. I am just not clever enough.”

Both actors claim to recognize aspects of themselves in their characters but MacFadyen’s identification with Darcy borders on compassion. “There is a bit of Darcy in everyone. I found it very sympathetic. I found it kind of heartbreaking at times really. Nobody is just arrogant and cold without reason. I kind of thought he was a young man who was still trying to work out who he was, is, who to be with, still grieving the loss of his parents.“ MacFadyen recognizes that wounded pride can both humiliate and spark an attraction: “It is terribly attractive when your pomposity is noticed and then punctured in public. It is infuriating and embarrassing and you hate that person. When (Elizabeth) humiliates (Darcy) at the Merriton Ball, he finds it incredibly funny. I mean, he is mortified and hates her but goes home and locks all the doors and laughs hysterically into the pillow. That is why she is so attractive.”

MacFadyen describes his prepping for the role as “fairly straightforward. It is such a beautifully written part and it is such a lovely part to play (that) it makes an actor’s job easier rather than having to wade through and work out what it is all about.” Although, neither MacFadyen nor Knightley are strangers to period pieces, preparation for the roles began early with the two undergoing private rehearsals with director Joe Wright a week before filming commenced. “And we were really lucky because we had historians come in and give us lectures and we had etiquette lessons and all that kind of stuff,’ says Knightley. “It was good because I think doing a piece like this you have to learn the rules to be able know how to break them. So it was good to be clear about what the rules were.” Learning the rules and codes of behavior for men and women during the Regency period was imperative for the film’s authenticity. “There are different ways of walking and talking.,” says MacFadyden, “There are different ways of being in a room with women than there are now…The fact that they wouldn’t touch and they wouldn’t talk about (their emotions) pre-Freud: ‘So, this is how I am feeling Lizzie and how do you feel about this?’ So the slightest thing is charged. The slightest touch would be so immense. Whereas now we are all so tactile.” There is no lip-locking in the film at all “because they wouldn’t have, at least not until after they were married. It is all held in. You don’t need to do a big kind of snog.”

1105_pride_04.jpgAnd about costume dramas in general, Knightley says she loves them: "I love going to see them. I can't wait for Memoirs of a Geisha . That just looks absolutely beautiful. And I love performing in them. Because in a funny kind of way, you feel more free. You know about the period. You can read the books. You can see the paintings. But you're never actually going to know what it was like. You are never going to have been there so there is always room: you can stretch those boundaries a bit."

The historical exactness that proved to be the most taxing on both actors were the highly complicated choreographed 18th Century dance steps. MacFadyen notes: "I had done a bit of stuff from vaguely that period before so I knew bits and bobs." But describes his dancing as "shaky" at best. Knightley is more self-deprecating: "I made myself look like an idiot! It was great because we actually started rehearsals off with the dancing and there is nothing that is going to break the ice more than everybody looking so stupid. So you don't know what to do with your limbs. You say: 'Oh, God this feels stupid.' I absolutely loved it. I really loved it. It was kind of difficult (especially) the scene with Darcy, where it is talking and dancing at the same time. And you do it once and it is difficult enough to remember the steps and then they take the music away so that you have got to say the lines. So you are trying to remember what the music is and trying to say the lines…and then Joe took everyone else that you were dancing with away as well. So suddenly we had to dance with absolutely no one there and no music. And it was suddenly like: 'Ok, I have no idea what we are doing now.' Yeah, it was quite difficult but I loved that." Agrees MacFadyen: "That was a hard day. That was a long day…Terrible, when you miss each other (in the dance)."

But the scene that both actors single out as memorable is the proposal scene, shot under rain machines. "That was a good scene,' says MacFadyen, "We called it the 'car crash scene'". He describes it as his favorite while Knightley says it was the most difficult. "Just because it was quite complex. You want to get that sexual tension between them. You want to get the fact that they really fucking fancy each other but that they hate each other at the same time. And sometimes you go too far and wonder and you have to pull it back. But that is what is great about the job: it's when it is difficult it is fantastic."

1105_pride_03.jpgThe cast of Pride and Prejudice includes some of the great living icons of modern British cinema and theatre, including Dame Judi Dench, Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn. Working alongside them was for MacFadyen a great experience but he demurred from discussing acting with any of them or asking for thespian tips: "I am much too afraid of appearing earnest and gauche. So we just gossip and talk shit. But inevitably just by being with or Judi Dench or people like that…I mean, actors steal things from other actors all the time…you watch how they operate and how they work and it all sinks in." Knightley seems as much in awe of her older co-stars but has trouble identifying what it is that makes them masters of their craft: "Like Johnny (Depp), I have watched Johnny and I go: 'Right, you are a genius; you're a legend. I am going to understand how it works and I am going to be better than you, watching you.' I have no fucking idea how that happens. I don't know what you are doing. I don't know where it comes from. So I haven't been able to steal anything. I think what I have learned, actually from working with everyone, but mostly from this with Donald Sutherland and with Judi Dench, (is that) they were both really nervous when they started, really nervous and both so excited by it….As a twenty year-old actress, you go: 'They are still learning. Nothing is ever good enough. They are still hungry for it.' That is brilliant. And it is the same with Johnny Depp. You watch him playing Jack Sparrow and he is loving it. He's loving playing it. He's loving being in that world. He's excited by it. And sometimes he goes: 'Oh, was that alright? Was that okay?' And you think: 'You're Johnny Depp, man! You know that is okay!'"

But perhaps the most arresting memory that they take away from being on set with living legend Judi Dench is not her boundless fascination with acting but her penchant for subversive needlework. Her work certainly did not resemble the delicately stitched roses of a Mrs. Bennet. "She makes these like needlework embroideries on set in the tedium of filming", says MacFadyen, "but they are all: 'You Are a Cunt'. And she gives them as presents. And it's Dame Judi Dench. And she is doing this beautifully, intricate, ornate (work). You kind of see the work materializing as the shoot goes on. Like: 'You Are a Fucking Shit.' Knightley never received her embroidered cushion from Dench but remarks: "I love that! She gives this fantastic air. She just sits there and she embroiders and you think: 'Oh, that's so nice! It's Judi Dench. It's so quaint; she's embroidering a cushion,' and you go: 'What are you embroidering?' And (it says): 'Fuck!' Apparently she's got hundreds of them just covered in swear words or rude sayings."

Of the final finished film, MacFadyen says: "I don't know what I was expecting really. I was really pleased when I saw it. I think Joe has done a really lovely job. There has been a lot of hype about it being very gritty and real. But I think…that it isn't chocolate boxy. Like when it is all sweet and saccharine and everyone has ringlets and everyone looks lovely. Like the Merchant Ivory glow. There is a period glow which is so beautiful but it is not real and I think Joe has taken that away. It still looks gorgeous. Like (you think) the Bennets are very successful because you really think they live there but then the house is all full of pigs and chickens and shit." Pressed to say if she felt parts of the book's plot line had been sacrificed in the final edit, says Knightley: "Oh, of course. I think it is a difficult thing when you try and make a film of book you really love because you only ever have about two hours to tell the story and it is never going to be enough.'" Perhaps the most anticipated quote from the novel is the line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged (that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife)". "(But) we don't do that line! Which is quite extraordinary and actually I didn't realize that until I saw the film the first time and sort of went: 'Wait a minute. We don't say the most famous line in the entire book!'—which is, I think, quite good actually because you expect that one. There is a lot more of the Wickham stuff in the book that I love. I love all that Lydia/Wickham stuff that we never shot. It was never written into the script again because you had to cut it. You have only got two hours and you have got to focus in on this aspect. (But) what is lovely about it is that you go: 'You know what, there is quite a wealth of stuff that we had to leave out because it didn't go with our story so therefore the next film of Pride and Prejudice can focus on that and that will be fantastic. That will be nice.'"

Click here to read the review of Pride and Prejudice.