Mr Darcy - Next Generation (Nov 2005)

Mr. Darcy, next generation
By Sarah Lyall The New York Times


LONDON Anyone signing up to play Mr. Darcy in a film version of "Pride and Prejudice" naturally takes on a lot of baggage. First he must contend with the character himself, one of literature's great romantic heroes and a man almost too exquisitely drawn on the page to be rendered faithfully on film.

Then there are also the ghosts of Darcys past. These include the gorgeous Laurence Olivier, whose long-lashed, Byronic performance in the 1940 film opposite Greer Garson shouted "Hollywood Leading Man." Forty-five years later, the gorgeous-in-a-different-way Colin Firth captivated a generation of British women when he emerged, dripping and fully dressed, from a lake in the 1995 BBC version - a moment as indelible in its way as the one in which Marlon Brando shouts "Stella!" in his undershirt.

In the latest "Pride & Prejudice," which opened in London in September and opens in the United States this month, Matthew MacFadyen emerges as a moodier, subtler, more tormented Mr. Darcy than either of his predecessors. He has his own wet-T-shirt-moment equivalent, when he strides romantically from the mist toward the end of the film. But he says that - in his own mind, at least - he was not an obvious choice for the part.

"I don't feel like a romantic lead; I guess I feel more like a character actor," MacFadyen confessed recently. Dressed down for an interview in jeans and a sweatshirt, he lived up to his advance billing as the epitome of non-starry casualness.

"I don't look like Mr. Darcy in my head," he went on. "If I could paint Darcy, he would be dishier, darker-haired than I am."

In tackling the part, MacFadyen, a classically trained actor who enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art just after high school, tried not to be unnerved by the specter of his predecessors, particularly Firth, universally acknowledged to be the gold standard of Darcyness until now. Nor did he read Jane Austen's novel in advance, lest it muddy his understanding of the script. (He has since read "Pride and Prejudice.") It helped, too, to think of Mr. Darcy as human rather than iconic, as suffering not just from the pride of the film's title but also from an unease and awkwardness in his own skin.

"Nobody's just arrogant," MacFadyen said. "I've met people who are embattled and dismissive, but when you get to know them you find that they're vulnerable - that that hauteur or standoffishness is because they're pedaling furiously underneath.

"I found it heartbreaking and sympathetic," he went on, speaking of Mr. Darcy's emotional fragility. "He's a young man who doesn't know who he is yet. Even though he's 28 and comes from this ancient family and has a huge estate, he has that adolescent quality of taking himself very seriously and being very passionate. I don't see him not caring about anybody. I think he cares very deeply. He's just locked up."

At first blush, MacFadyen, 31, seems to share Mr. Darcy's brooding inarticulateness. Silences fall while he gropes for words, starts and fails to finish sentences, lets his thoughts trail off. It's not that he doesn't like to be pinned down, exactly; it's more that he can't verbalize what he truly wants to say.

With mostly television and stage experience, he is not yet schooled in the Hollywood publicity convention wherein a movie star earnestly defines his craft and describes his extensive preparation for a part.

"Everyone goes, 'How did you prepare for the role, how did you approach it?"' MacFadyen said. "Well, you turn up, learn your lines, grow some sideburns
, play the scene and go home. I got on with it. It really is as simple as that. You have to think about it and everything, but you can't describe your own workings out or thinkings or wonderings."

But then he tried: "The simpler it gets, the more difficult it gets," he said, referring to film acting. "Trying to be very simple and truthful is hard, because the tendency is to want to color it and add on."

MacFadyen specializes in playing characters with reservoirs of emotion beneath deceptively cool surfaces: a conflicted but deadly MI5 spy in "Spooks," on the BBC; Prince Hal in both parts of "Henry IV," opposite Michael Gambon's Falstaff at the National Theatre. More recently, in the film "In My Father's Den," he played a troubled New Zealand war photographer who returns home when his father dies and unearths terrible, long-buried family secrets.

While many male stars turn out to be disappointingly delicate in person, MacFadyen is 6-foot-3, or about 1.9 meters, of brawn. "I wanted someone who is a proper manly man, and not just a pretty boy," said the director, Joe Wright. MacFadyen also impressed Wright and Paul Webster, the film's producer, by his lustful chemistry with Keira Knightley, who plays Elizabeth Bennet.

"He was our first choice, but it's equally true that we were making a fairly expensive film by British standards, for Universal, and we owed it to them to make sure that many of the more established actors around were given a shot," Webster said. "Once he auditioned against Keira, it was clear that there was no competition."

When "Pride and Prejudice" opened in London, it threw the new Mr. Darcy into a raging argument about whether he was as good as Firth. "The Great Darcy Debate," read the headline in the Daily Mail, with women lining up behind the two men.

What of Mr. Darcy and Lizzy after the story is over? There are two endings to the film: the British version ends with a witticism by Mr. Bennet, taken directly from the novel; the American version ends with the two leads canoodling in a very un-Austenian manner. "I think it seems like a perfect marriage," MacFadyen said. "It's the classic attraction of opposites, you know - pulling and pushing at each other. And fascinated by each other."

Alas for moviegoers with crushes , MacFadyen has his own object of marital fascination : the actor Keely Hawes, his co-star in "Spooks" and the mother of his child. But his settled home life has not helped him feel comfortable in his new role of Big Star, no more than his good reviews have.

As an example, MacFadyen described seeing Gambon - who has replaced the late Richard Harris in the role of Dumbledore in the "Harry Potter" films - answer a fan's question about the difficulties of filling Harris's shoes. When Gambon responded that yes, it had been difficult, not least because he has a different foot size, everyone laughed at the joke.

But MacFadyen had no such luck when he tried the same ploy at the "Pride & Prejudice" premiere in London, in response to a similar question about stepping into the shoes of Firth. It fell completely flat, he said.