The initial critical responses to the new Focus Features Pride & Prejudice share two consistent features: 1) the exaltation of Keira Knightley’s beauty and 2) the questioning of Matt Macfadyen’s ability to fill the role of Mr. Darcy. In casting the new Pride & Prejudice, it seems clear that director Joe Wright shifts the focus away from the traditional bifurcation of American stars and British actors (whereby American celebrities are the box office draw, provided they are supported by the talented and trained Brits) to a gender division: the female star and the male actor. If we compare the reviews for the 2005 Pride & Prejudice to the response to the 1995 BBC/A&E miniseries, it becomes clear that the casting of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet also shifts the focus from Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth as the object of desire.1
Reviewers and household viewers of the 1995 BBC production swooned over Colin Firth’s Darcy: Lyme Hall benefited from a surge in tourism as visitors rushed to view the pond made famous by Darcy’s dive; women held “Darcy Parties”; Colin Firth’s career soared (Hunt 4). In contrast, Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of the 2005 film gushes that Knightley’s “radiance suffuses the film,” or, as he more concisely and perhaps more accurately puts it, “Ms. Knightley is, in a word, a knockout.” Less forgiving, or perhaps merely less aroused, critics chastised the film’s liberties with Austen’s text: the demotion of the Bennet family to the level of gentleman farmer, the excision of key scenes and addition of new scenes, and certain inexplicable changes—such as the decision to have Lady Catherine barge into the Bennet house after dark instead of the equally dramatic, but slightly more sensible, daytime visit depicted in Austen’s novel. Although it is easy to bash the film for its indifference to Jane Austen’s novel, in this essay I will argue that the cause of these controversial changes is the director’s interpretive decision to shift the focus of desire from Darcy to Elizabeth.
In fact, the problem is twofold, encompassing both the decision of the filmmakers to center the film on Elizabeth and Keira Knightley’s pre-existing celebrity status. As Holden’s review demonstrates, Keira Knightley is a rising starlet; first noticed in Bend it Like Beckham and achieving a wider audience through her role in Pirates of the Caribbean, her star status necessarily complicates her reception as Elizabeth Bennet. Whereas Austen’s Elizabeth is famously dismissed by Mr. Darcy—“‘She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me’” (12)—Keira Knightley is already an acknowledged beauty. The filmmakers choose to capitalize on her appearance and celebrity to generate interest and ticket sales for the film. Her image appears in every trailer and on every poster. The focus on Knightley’s image is echoed in the film itself: Elizabeth is constantly in view and on view. In creating Keira/Elizabeth as the object of desire, however, the film renders itself liable to Laura Mulvey’s critique of narrative cinema: the body of Knightley becomes the source of visual pleasure, and Wright’s direction insists on the availability of that body to the viewer.
Before I continue with this point, let me make a comparison to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. As a television miniseries, it was not subject to the same publicity blitz that the 2005 Pride & Prejudice presented, but in the promotional materials that do exist, we see a marked difference. The cover of the DVD, for example, features Mr. Darcy’s head prominently in the foreground, with Jane and Elizabeth seated demurely in the middle-ground. Perhaps capitalizing on Colin Firth’s popularity following the film, the DVD cover emphasizes Darcy as the object of Jane and Elizabeth’s (and the viewer’s) gaze. In the production itself, the director, Simon Langton, and screenwriter Andrew Davies add scenes featuring Mr. Darcy relaxing in the bathtub, fencing, riding, and, of course, diving into the water in the infamous pond scene. This “extra Darcy” has been the subject of fan fantasy and of critical discussion; I join Lisa Hopkins and Cheryl Nixon, among others, in arguing that in these added scenes Darcy’s body is eroticized as an object of the viewer’s gaze.2 Indeed, throughout the film, Darcy is presented to the Bennets and to the viewer as the object of desire. While these departures from Austen’s text emphasize Darcy’s body and physical presence, however, the film stays true to Austen’s text by simultaneously limiting Elizabeth’s and the viewer’s access to Darcy’s body: we see him from a distance in the opening shot as he and Bingley ride across to Netherfield; we see his house, miniature and portrait before we see the man himself in the visit to Pemberley; and even in the final proposal scene he and Elizabeth acknowledge their affection and then walk on in contented silence—we do not see or hear them speak to one another for the rest of the film.
This silence in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mimics Austen’s language; Austen tells us that Darcy “expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do” (366). Austen does not give us the details of Darcy’s declaration; her narrator leaves readers to imagine just how sensibly and warmly a man violently in love could express himself. Langton and Davies also refuse to represent what viewers most desire: the confession of love between Darcy and Elizabeth. Viewers must be content with the fact that her feelings are “quite the opposite” of what they once were and with Darcy’s reply: “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.” The effect is similar: whereas Austen requires readers to imagine Darcy’s language for themselves, the film suggests that such language occurs off camera, if it occurs at all. What each of these examples illustrates is that Darcy’s absence is necessary to render him desirable: like so many of Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth must know what she has lost before she can fully know that she cares for him. Despite several titillating glimpses of Firth/Darcy’s body, for much of the miniseries his disembodied head floats before Elizabeth (and before the viewer). The rest of his body, the man and not the memory of the man, is always at a remove until the kiss that literally concludes the picture.3
In contrast, the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice begins with Elizabeth Bennet. The camera follows her walk across the moor, looking over her shoulder as she reads her book. It continues to share her perspective as she makes her way through the Bennet house—a house that is decidedly dingy, derelict, and slightly overrun by both her family and barnyard animals. The camera, and thus the viewer, even gets under the covers with her and Jane after the ball. Elizabeth, not Darcy, is always the subject of the gaze of the camera, and thus of the viewer. Although the film features several moments of sexual frisson between Elizabeth and Darcy, from the first glance at the ball to the concluding kiss, she, more than he, is the object of desire.
Pride and Prejudice film adaptations are generally classified as “chick flicks,” and Austen herself has inspired numerous imitators in the genre known as “chick lit.” In this respect, it may seem strange to argue that the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice creates Elizabeth as the locus of desire, since it seems unlikely that much of the film’s presumably female audience would literally desire Knightley over the admittedly handsome Macfadyen. But, if we think about print media, we can see where this counter-argument breaks down: Cosmo, Glamour, Seventeen—magazines ostensibly directed at a female audience—all feature beautiful and often scantily-attired women on their covers. The implication is that such magazines appeal to female insecurity, to the need to emulate an already internalized standard of beauty. Instead of gazing at magazine covers with male bodies, women select magazines that reflect their own position as the recipient of the gaze. In a similar fashion, the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice encourages viewers to either identify with Elizabeth (as the passive object of the gaze) or to enjoy the scopophilic4 pleasure of gazing at her. Wright’s film, then, is a disturbing re-writing of Pride and Prejudice that restricts female desire and the power of the female gaze and recenters that power in the male gaze.5
In the Focus Features production the viewer is always, via the camera, near Elizabeth. The film begins by positioning the camera so that the viewer is reading over Elizabeth’s shoulder as she walks into the house, and this kind of intimate close-up is repeated throughout the film: the viewer is under the seating at the first ball as Elizabeth talks to Charlotte, watches her dress with Jane, stands outside of the Netherfield Ball as Elizabeth ponders her evening, and is literally underneath her eyelashes as she travels through Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle. In those rare moments when the camera is not focused on Elizabeth, it leads the viewer through the Bennets’ house and garden in an intimate and also slightly voyeuristic fashion: the camera follows the housemaid with the laundry, listens to the pillow talk of Elizabeth’s mother and father, and zooms in on the genitalia of the pig that Mr. Bennet is ushering through the kitchen. Wright thus gratifies our desire to see Elizabeth and to know everything about her, a desire that Austen’s text and other adaptations do not indulge.
In fact, much of Austen’s text focuses on the obstacles that prevent characters from rightly seeing and knowing one another. Class difference—at least one of the bases of Mr. Darcy’s “pride” and a key feature of Austen’s work—is simultaneously expanded and eliminated in the Focus Features production. Elizabeth no longer retorts that she is “‘a gentleman’s daughter’” (356) to Lady Catherine’s impertinent questions, and there can be little hope, indeed, that she is: she swings barefoot in the barnyard, she is rude to her elders and—despite Mrs. Bennet’s claim “that they were very well able to keep a good cook” (65)—Elizabeth and her sisters spend an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen, dressing pies and dying ribbons. It seems unlikely that an Elizabeth who is this poor would have an opportunity to meet Mr. Darcy at all. This Cinderella-like exaggeration seems to be a way to get around Keira Knightley’s celebrity: if the costumer puts her in a dingy dress, and Wright films her walking through a dilapidated mansion, viewers will surely forget that she is Keira Knightley and begin to think of her as Elizabeth Bennet. But there is a darker element to this disguise as well: by dressing down Keira Knightley and by granting the viewer constant access to her image, the film takes the spectacle of her body and presents it for the viewer’s consumption.
In contrast, the 2005 film’s treatment of Mr. Darcy works to undo the Darcy cult established by the 1995 film: Macfadyen’s Darcy is always fully clothed and almost always shot from a distance. Indeed, whereas the 1995 Pride and Prejudice called Darcy to Elizabeth’s thoughts via a floating image of his head, the Focus Features film has Elizabeth encounter Darcy’s head in marble: cold, white marble! The only moment that might be described as sexualizing Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy is when he walks across the moor near the conclusion of the film. Yet, even at this moment—with his shirt half open and coat flaring behind him—the camera focuses instead on Keira Knightley waiting for him, allowing the viewer to place him or herself in the role of the indeterminate man striding toward the actress, or to identify her or himself with the desired object of his ever-approaching gaze.
This tactic is in keeping with Mulvey’s account of the gaze: “Each is associated with a look: that of the spectator in direct scopophilic contact with the female form displayed for his enjoyment (connoting male fantasy) and that of the spectator fascinated with the image of his like set in an illusion of natural space, and through him gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis” (444). Mulvey offers a way out of the restrictive power of the gaze—one might even argue Austen anticipates her in Elizabeth’s responses to Darcy’s gaze within the novel—but the 2005 Pride & Prejudice reinscribes the prerogative of the male gaze and the pleasure and power associated with that gaze.
The changes in adapting the novel to a screenplay simultaneously introduce and limit desire. There are three major changes to Austen’s text: the addition of “touch” (and therefore of sex), the near elimination of the Wickham plot, and the drastic additions to the conclusion. Let me begin with “touch.” In the film, the moments of physical contact between Elizabeth and Darcy are obscured: the sun rises between them as they almost kiss, reducing them to silhouettes; the first proposal scene ends in a near kiss, but Darcy pulls back; and their first touch, when Darcy hands Elizabeth into the carriage, is a close-up of hands that seem almost disengaged from each actor’s body. These images are also remarkable in that they do not appear in Austen’s text. As additions to Austen’s text, they might be considered comparable to the “extra Darcy” scenes of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. While the scenes added to the 2005 production also illuminate the sexual subtext of Austen’s novel, their effect is to redirect desire from Darcy to Elizabeth.
The drastic reduction of the Wickham plot also affects the representation of desire in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice. The Wickham plot is, of course, one of the easiest elements of the novel to cut, and one must cut to reduce a 300-plus-page novel to a two-hour film. Wickham is necessary, ultimately, to provide an obstacle to Darcy and Elizabeth—Elizabeth must feel that she has lost Darcy in order to know how to value him—but Wickham is also Elizabeth’s first love interest. The screenwriter, Deborah Moggach, substantially cuts their connection: aside from a brief chat in a ribbon shop and then by the river, there is very little conversation between the two characters, and what conversation remains serves mostly to give Mr. Darcy his (undeserved) bad reputation. There is little reason for Darcy to claim, “you take an eager interest in the gentleman,” for we have no evidence that Elizabeth is interested in Wickham.
This lack of interest is in direct contrast to Austen’s novel and the 1995 Pride and Prejudice: in Austen’s novel and in the 1995 miniseries, Elizabeth’s interest in Wickham is evident. The effect is to make it clear that Elizabeth is both desirable and desiring. Indeed, although most adaptations severely cut the role of Colonel Fitzwilliam, it is worth noting that in the BBC/A&E production he, too, engages Elizabeth’s interest, and is interested in her in return. By limiting Wickham’s role, the Focus Features adaptation also limits Elizabeth’s desire: she has no interest other than Darcy, no need to balance emotions with pragmatism (as Austen’s Elizabeth must when endeavoring to forget Wickham and realizing that Colonel Fitzwilliam must forget her). Instead, the Focus Features Elizabeth must confront the possibility that she is not Darcy’s only object of desire. Anne de Bourgh is substantially prettier than she is usually made to appear, and, despite Wright’s claim in the “Director’s Commentary” that his Anne de Bourgh loves Colonel Fitzwilliam, in the film itself Elizabeth is told that Miss de Bourgh and Darcy are intended for one another. When Elizabeth arrives at Pemberley, a similar situation occurs: she hears music from another room and cracks the door to spy Darcy embracing another woman. It is, in fact, his sister, Georgiana, but the viewer shares Elizabeth’s initial shock: Darcy is embracing a young, attractive, and accomplished woman. Until she discovers that the woman is his sister, she must think that Darcy has already found a wife. Whereas Austen’s Darcy is attractive because he is always kept just beyond Elizabeth’s reach by his wealth, scruples, or absence from town, the Focus Features Darcy is always present. Elizabeth’s anxiety comes instead from a fear that he does not desire her.
It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice provides the most explicit declaration of love of any adaptation of the novel—including Bridget Jones Diary. In fact, one might argue that the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice includes the most explicit declaration of love in any Austen adaptation. Austen is well aware that such effusions do not always read well on the printed page; it is far more effective to describe the purport or the impact of such excesses and allow the reader to imagine whatever language is most moving to herself or himself. Even Patricia Rozema backed away from such excesses in her controversial adaptation of Mansfield Park by using the conceit of flying birds to imitate, as Rozema herself noted, Austen’s distancing strategies at the conclusions of her novels. For Rozema, this image was a way of making visible what she and Edward Said, among others, determined to be the colonial subtext of Mansfield Park. Like Rozema, Wright fills in some of the lacunae in Austen’s text. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s “gaps” ask the reader to imagine declarations of love. Wright, however, is anxious to make visible the romantic subtext of the film: the near kisses and the brief moments of contact have their counterpart in the final declarations of love: sex first, words later.
The change is worth looking at more closely, in tandem with Austen’s original text. After Elizabeth thanks Mr. Darcy for his part in Lydia’s recovery, Darcy replies “‘You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever’” (366). In Austen’s text, this passage continues, “Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances” (366). The BBC Pride and Prejudice, feeling the need to put some words in Elizabeth’s mouth, has her respond: “My feelings? My feelings are so different. In fact, they are quite the opposite.” Compare this with the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice, in which Elizabeth remains silent while Darcy continues, “But if they have changed, then you must allow me to tell you that you have bewitched me body and soul, and I love you.” In response to this declaration, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth kisses his hands and makes the illuminating observation, “Your hands are cold”—as well they might be at that early hour!
But what do these changes signify? Unlike the BBC production, the new Pride & Prejudice radically shifts the power dynamic between Elizabeth and Darcy. She remains silent, as Darcy’s own language might imply she should—“‘one word from you will silence me on this subject forever’”—leaving Darcy to make his declaration and retaining her position as the object of, rather than participant in, desire. Instead of assuring Darcy of her regard, Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth kisses his hands—an oddly courtly, servile gesture. Her comment, “your hands are cold,” reminds the viewer of the marble statue of Darcy in the gallery at Pemberley. Having limited Elizabeth’s desires to Darcy, the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice also images her desire as literally subservient to his.
The new Pride & Prejudice condenses the ensuing pages to focus on Elizabeth’s conversation with her father and on life at Pemberley after their marriage. But whereas Austen’s text gives us a detailed description of the role of Elizabeth’s family in her life at Pemberley, the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice imagines Elizabeth and Darcy at home alone. The effect of this change is to eliminate Elizabeth’s ability to navigate the demands of her family and Darcy’s family: in Austen’s text, after all, it is Elizabeth who encourages Darcy to reconcile with Lady Catherine, while simultaneously saving her own money to send on to the unfortunate Lydia and Wickham. In the new Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth is once more presented to the viewer as the object of desire. She and Darcy sit on a table on one of the porches of Pemberley and she chastises him for calling her his “dear.” The only “endearments” he is “allowed” are “‘my pearl’ for Sundays” and “Mrs. Darcy,” both of which are terms of possession.6
Although Elizabeth’s comments appear to grant her agency—she controls the terms Darcy may use to describe her—the effect is rather the opposite: Elizabeth is Darcy’s pearl, his precious ornament. When he is happy, he is to use his own name, Darcy, to refer to her, and to remind himself via the honorific “Mrs.” that she is his—as she literally is under the laws of coverture. In each case, the endearments that Elizabeth names for herself efface any independent identity and remove any connection to her family. In fact, it is worth noting that Darcy’s first endearment, “my dear,” is rejected because “that’s what my father used to call my mother when he was cross with her.” This Elizabeth belongs to no one but Darcy.7
In the initial edit of Pride & Prejudice, the camera panned up from the couple to the stars above them. The director, feeling (at last) that this was perhaps a bit too much, changed his mind. Therefore, the film ends a bit abruptly with a sharp cut to black just before the credits roll. Unfortunately, this is not the only artificial quality of the concluding sequence. The actors had to dub in the lines in post-production, which seems nicely symbolic of the fact that their lines do not exist in Austen’s original text. They are literally filling in a silence, for Austen’s conclusion is much more concerned with Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationships with each other’s families than with each other. In an early screening for executives, this final scene was deemed so saccharine that Working Title productions cut it from the British release, ending instead with Donald Sutherland’s last line: “if any young men come for Kitty or Mary, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.”
Although the British ending keeps the focus on the Bennet family, it is important to note that it continues to imagine women as objects of commerce and desire: Mr. Bennet is “at leisure” as he waits for the next gentleman to “come” for his remaining daughters. Austen’s text makes this scene slightly more disturbing: Mr. Bennet is at leisure and in a good mood because his discovery that Darcy paid for Lydia’s wedding clears him of any obligation to pay back Mr. Gardiner. He notes, “‘It will save me a world of trouble and economy. Had it been your uncle’s doing, I must and would have paid him; but these violent young lovers carry every thing their own way. I shall offer to pay him to-morrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter’” (377). Mr. Bennet thinks of Lizzie’s marriage in terms of financial benefit to himself. Mrs. Bennet’s response is much along the same lines: “‘[H]ow rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have!’” (378). Although Mrs. Bennet begins by noting that Elizabeth will be rich, when she names what her riches will consist of, it is clear that they are all contingent on Darcy’s generosity: what pin-money, what jewels, what carriages. The novel’s brief evidence of the economics lurking beneath Elizabeth and Darcy’s match is quickly put by as Austen rushes to her conclusion in the remaining two chapters. By remaining instead with Mr. Bennet at his leisure, the British cut of the new Pride & Prejudice leaves the focus on the trade in daughters and dowries, and inscribes Elizabeth within that trade. In both British and American versions, the film trades on Keira Knightley’s beauty and star status for box office returns, and in doing so, implicates us all. The casting of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth might appear to give Austen’s heroine her due: Knightley is a fan of the novel and a talented and capable actress in her own right. Despite the trailer’s claim that this Elizabeth Bennet is a “modern woman,” however, the Focus Features adaptation renders Knightley/Elizabeth little more than a pleasing visual image.
1. This distinction held true in an informal survey of my Introduction to Literature classes: students who had seen the BBC version preferred it because of their attraction to Mr. Darcy. Students who had only seen the 2005 production enjoyed Knightley’s performance; they didn’t mention Mr. Darcy.
2. The term “extra Darcy” comes from Louis Menand’s review of the film. Erica Sheen suggests that these added scenes occupy “gaps” in the novel and thus are “faithful, passionately so, to the text’s concealed pleasure in its own promiscuity” (23).
3. Lisa Hopkins has suggested, “This is, of course, true to the novel, but Andrew Davies’s treatment of the closing moments suggests that he was not concerned so much about that as with teasingly keeping back full resolution for as long as possible” (119).
4. Mulvey defines scopophilia, via Freud, as “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (440).
5. Here I am primarily considering the 2005 Pride & Prejudice as a revision of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, but I do think that this claim extends to Austen’s novel. In the novel, Elizabeth frequently challenges the prerogative of the male gaze. See, for example, Elizabeth’s response to Darcy at the first ball. After he looks at her and pronounces her “‘tolerable,’” Elizabeth tells the story to her friends, “for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous” (12). Indeed, Darcy is described as the victim of his own gaze: “Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing. . . . Of this she was perfectly unaware” (23). When Elizabeth is aware of Darcy’s gaze, at a party at the Lucases, she challenges him directly: “‘Did you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I expressed myself uncommonly well just now, when I was teazing Colonel Forster to give us a ball at Meryton?’” (24).
6. Elizabeth does suggest another, more empowered term of endearment: “Goddess Divine.” This, however, is clearly treated as a joke by both characters—as a term “for very special occasions” and thus rarely used, if ever. This term reinscribes how very powerless Elizabeth is as Mrs. Darcy.
7. And, of course, the viewer.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1966.
Holden, Stephen. “Marrying off Those Bennet Sisters Again, but This Time Elizabeth is a Looker.” Review of Pride & Prejudice. The New York Times 11 Nov. 2005. 15 Apr. 2007 http://movies2.nytimes.com/2005/11/11/movies/11prid.html?ex=1176782400&en=97912be821dd7738&ei=5070.
Hopkins, Lisa. “Mr. Darcy’s Body: Privileging the Female Gaze.” Jane Austen and Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 111-21.
Hunt, Liz. “Get Down and Party with Mr Darcy; Video-watching Sessions, Fundraising Balls, Country House Trails.” The Independent 19 July 1996, Living 4.
Menand, Louis. “What Jane Austen Doesn’t Tell Us.” New York Review of Books 1 Feb. 1996: 13-15.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminisms. Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997. 438-48.
Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Simon Langton. Perf. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. BBC/A&E, 1995.
Pride & Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. Focus Features, 2005.
Nixon, Cheryl L. “Balancing the Courtship Hero: Masculine Emotional Display in Film Adaptations of Austen’s Novels.” Jane Austen and Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 22-43.
Sheen, Erica. “‘Where the garment gapes’: Faithfulness and Promiscuity in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.” The Classic Novel: From Page to Screen. Ed. Robert Giddings and Erica Sheen. Manchester: MUP, 2000. 14-30.