The 2005 Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, distinguishes itself from other interpretations of Jane Austen’s classic novel in several ways. The characterizations are more modern, featuring a saucier Elizabeth (Knightley) and a softer Darcy (Macfayden). And, as usual for a mainstream film, the storyline is heavily condensed to fit time constraints. (Compare its 129-minute runtime to A&E’s 1996, 323-minute version.)
Perhaps the strongest deviation, though, is how director Joe Wright and screenplay writer Deborah Moggach handle the story. Austen’s writing is known for its intimate, “drawing-room” scenes. While she also used the English countryside (among other locales) to drive her narrative arcs, her deft representation of early nineteenth-century social situations adds volumes to her characters’ interactions.
The 2005 version, in contrast, minimizes the intimacy of those scenes and places the characters squarely in a world of overgrown fields and crowded dancing rooms. This strategy exposes easily glossed details to viewers, such as the material state of Longbourne, the Bennett family home; this type of realistic depiction is refreshing. However, the adaptation also loses much of Austen’s original meaning.
For example, Austen’s novels employ dancing as a metaphor for courtship and marriage. Simply put, eligible men and women demonstrated their social worth through their knowledge and use of social skills (like dancing) and manners. Because of this association, the infamous dance scene at the Netherfield Ball between the bumbling Mr. Collins and Elizabeth functions on several levels in the novel: By securing the first two dances of the night, Collins declares his interest in Elizabeth to the small society of Hertfordshire. Collins’s poor dance skills are mortifying for Elizabeth, and she is embarrassed in front of everyone attending. Darcy, on the other hand, is an excellent dancer and the most eligible bachelor at the ball, so by engaging Elizabeth in a dance, he restores any damage to her pride inflicted by Collins. There’s more to this scene, of course, but this offers a basic overview.
Now, Wright’s version takes the dance floor scene between Collins (played by Tom Hollander) and Elizabeth and conflates it. The result presents Elizabeth as, quite simply, rude, while Collins is more sympathetic. I appreciate the humanizing of Collins, who is often depicted as an almost-too-painful-to-watch character. The portrayal of Elizabeth as gossipy and blindly flouting social codes undermines the meaning of her subsequent dance with Darcy. No longer a pivotal moment in the reconciliation of their pride and prejudice, the dance instead provides shallow tension for the compressed narrative’s resolution.
Despite these points, the modernization of the film works overall, and it presents the love story of Elizabeth and Darcy in a way that many will find approachable and entertaining. Austen purists, including die-hard fans of the A&E version, however, will likely find the film’s lack of finesse and nuance troubling.
Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, directed by Joe Wright, is available on DVD and Blu-ray.