Pride and Prejudice - The IndieIn

Pride & Prejudice

By Kate Tremills


Imagine stepping onto a stage right after the world’s greatest actor. The audience stares at you coldly, crossing their arms and setting their jaws. You can’t improve on their favorite performer.

Why would you even try? The latest version of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice faced just such a reception.

Lucky for us, great challenges bring great contenders. Director Joe Wright (The Last King) brings to life the classic story of Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). In a 19th century world of strict roles, Elizabeth stands out with her quick tongue and sharp opinions. Her refreshing candor catches the eye of the rigid Mr. Darcy. But when Darcy’s quick judgment ruins the marriage prospects of her beloved sister, Elizabeth’s heart is set against him. Only time and truth can lead Elizabeth to understand Darcy’s motives and win her to his side.

Pride and Prejudice has been adapted several times for television, but this marks only the second attempt for the big screen. The producers knew the only possible approach was a fresh one. “There was no point in reinventing the story as it is such a worldwide favorite,” comments Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. “We wanted to present the story as it was written: casting actors at the ages Jane Austen indicated and giving them a depiction that avoided the ‘chocolate box’ depiction.”

Their choice of director supported this plan. As it turned out, Wright had never read the novel. He started with the script and was so moved he accepted the project. By reading the novel, however, he quickly realized that Austen was one of the first British realists. She was inventing a new and intimate genre at a time when Gothic novels were the rage.

Emboldened by Austen’s example, Wright chose to shoot the film in a style contrary to its predecessors. “I got excited about new ways to film the story,” he explains. “I wanted to treat it as a piece of British realism rather than going with the picturesque tradition; which tends to depict an idealized version of English heritage as some kind of heaven on earth. I wanted to make Pride & Prejudice real and gritty.”

Wright applied his approach not only to the cinematography and costumes, but also to his choice of actors. He was hesitant, at first, to cast Knightley in the role of Lizzie. Wright wanted an actress who didn’t fit the accepted norm of beauty, but rather would exemplify Lizzie’s rebellious and difficult nature.

"...I think Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most beautiful characters in English literature."

After talking to Knightley, he realized she was the perfect fit. “She asks questions of herself and other people, and is really a tomboy,” reflects Wright. “She has a lively mind and a great sense of humor. What does one look for in an actor? Originality of thought and somebody who is able and willing to give their heart to what they’re doing.”

Each actor leapt at the chance to adapt one of the best-loved books in English literature. The challenge before them, however, was arguably tougher than the one facing the director. They had to embody characters who were dear to the audience’s heart. Characters that had been made famous by the likes of Olivier, Firth, and Ehle. With the recent BBC production fresh in everyone’s hearts, Knightley and MacFadyen accepted the task with trepidation.

“I was completely terrified to the point where I nearly didn’t want to go up for it,” says Knightley. “But I think Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most beautiful characters in English literature. As an actress, if you get a chance to play a character like that, you can’t turn it down.”

MacFadyen echoed her sentiments. “Darcy achieved iconic status thanks to Mr. Colin Firth. So it was daunting in that respect. But I understood who [Darcy] was and I sympathized with him. It makes your job easier when you get a part that is so well-written.”

While preparing for the film, Wright and Knightley were blessed with serendipity. They discovered Austen’s one misgiving about Pride & Prejudice. In a letter to her sister, Austen “basically said that she was very happy with the book,” explains Knightley. “But that her one criticism was that she wished that she had put more shade in it. I thought, ‘Oh! That’s great. That means we’ve got something to play with.’”

And play they did. This interpretation of Pride & Prejudice finds beauty in its honesty. “We were looking for the detail in the period that might illuminate the character’s situations,” Wright elaborates. “If we made their lives quite grubby, if we put their feet in the mud, then Elizabeth’s aspiration for romantic love, her reaching for the stars would be all the more heroic and beautiful because of her earthbound existence.”

While Wright and screenwriter, Deborah Moggach, took liberties with the text that may upset purists, their intentions for the story and the characters were true. Pride& Prejudice is ultimately about overcoming limitations, both society’s and our own, to win life’s most coveted prize. By defying the limits of our expectations, Wright delivered a prize well-worth watching.



Kate Tremills is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, BC. A film business devotee, she travels the world to write scripts, take meetings, and interview filmmakers. Full coverage of Kate's adventures can be found at