PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.2 (Summer 2007)
Framing Heritage: The Role of Cinematography in Pride & Prejudice

Jessica Durgan


Jessica Durgan (email: has an undergraduate degree in film production and a graduate degree in English literature.  She is interested in nineteenth-century British literature and is currently working on her doctorate in English at Texas A&M University.


In adaptation, Erica Sheen notes, a “text goes upmarket” and “buys into more expensive institutional resources” (16) as it is transferred from book to screen; Pride and Prejudice has undergone this transition many times recently, from Jane Austen’s novel to BBC video in 1980, from video to filmed BBC miniseries in 1995, from 16mm television to 35 mm feature film in 2005.  Although there are many versions of the story, Pride and Prejudice has been made as a feature film only once before:  the Aldous Huxley-scripted, black-and-white version of 1940, produced as a comic romp, rather than dramatic adaptation, for wartime England.  As a result, Focus Features, the production company of the 2005 version, was relatively free in its ability to formulate new visuals and interpretations in bringing Austen’s text to the screen.  The film’s only true competition came from the beloved 1995 BBC miniseries.  The 1995 version, guided by the network’s mission to “educate and entertain” (“About the BBC”), was very faithful to the original Austen text, placing a particular value on historical fidelity.  Although the BBC was able to dedicate six hours to Austen’s storyline, it was somewhat limited artistically by television’s smaller budgets.  The Focus Features version—produced through the partnership of American, French and British companies—had the money and resources to interpret the novel more broadly and place greater emphasis on the grand romantic scope of the story.


In making the 2005 feature-length version of Austen’s work, the production company was faced with the question of where to situate the film in genre and tone.  First and foremost, they were undertaking a literary adaptation of a beloved English novel, a genre most closely associated with the British heritage film by both the industry and viewers alike.  The British heritage film, however, as represented by works like the Merchant Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End and A Room with a View, has many limitations as a genre.  Heritage films often have a narrow and typically older audience; these films are “valued for their cultural significance rather than their box office takings” (Higson, “Heritage Film” 232-33).  Their period settings (usually the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries) and literary antecedents align them with the cultural capital of “higher” art forms like literature and theatre.  Heritage is therefore associated with bourgeois values on many levels, not least because of the industry’s ties to the middle-class values of conservative Thatcherism.  In the 1980s, the Thatcher government established the National Trust for preserving and exhibiting heritage, a policy that has been accused of turning Britain into a cultural museum.  The heritage film has been charged with a similar crime because its display of historical objects, through costuming and interior design, often seems to be the genre’s primary draw for audiences mourning Britain’s illustrious past.  Andrew Higson argues that this problematic nostalgia allows the genre to successfully sell British history:  by commodifying and marketing images of Englishness, the British heritage genre sells the spectacle of British history, two hours at a time.


In the 1990s, however, under Tony Blair’s leadership, Britain underwent a “global ‘re-branding’” meant to portray the U. K. as a dynamic and “forward-looking” society (Monk, “Underbelly” 283).  Art played a large role in this movement—named by the popular media “Cool Britannia”—but Cool Britannia was in reality more aligned with Blair’s entrepreneurial economics than with artistic expression.  Working Title, the British production company that initiated the Pride & Prejudice feature film project, is another example of this economic revamping of British culture and industry.  Known for mainstream films that have had crossover success in America—Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Love Actually—Working Title’s ability to attract American and international viewers secured the partnership and monetary support of Hollywood’s Focus Features and France’s Studio Canal for its first foray into period adaptation, Pride & Prejudice.  Thus the 2005 film was from its conception caught between its American studio connections and its British production company, between Cool Britannia’s popular-cultural appeal and the heritage genre’s claim over British literary adaptations.


The resulting film, then, both wants to break free from the heritage genre and yet still maintain its allegiance to the Austen name and feel.  In an attempt to gain a fresh perspective on Austen’s classic, Working Title gave the film to a relatively inexperienced young director named Joe Wright.  In the Production Notes, Wright explains,


I got excited about new ways to film the story which I don’t believe have been done before.  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—and be as honest as possible. (4)


Wright’s comments align his treatment of the story with his background in social realism, but the film is positioned much closer to the heritage genre than his statement implies.  This ambivalence is seen in the publicity materials for Pride & Prejudice, in which Wright states his desire to break away from the heritage genre while the producers and writers communicate their reverence for Austen and English history.  The synopsis provided by the Production Notes begins,


The glorious world of Jane Austen is at last brought back to the big screen in all its romance, wit, and emotional force in Pride & Prejudice.  Faithful to the setting and period of the beloved novel and filmed entirely on location in the U. K., this is the first movie version of the story in 65 years.  (3)


Such comments, provided for the media and moviegoers in the publicity materials, illustrate the desire of the studio and the production company to remain faithful to the heritage genre in order to attract its audience, Austen fans, and a mainstream audience.  As a consequence of these warring philosophies of modernized realism and British heritage promotion, Wright’s version lands itself in a strange new gray area; in some ways a heritage film, it also resists the genre in others.


While the new Pride & Prejudice rejects heritage in a number of ways—such as Wright’s gritty realism and the casting of the international actors to play British roles—the film most effectively distances itself from both the heritage genre and from previous Austen adaptations in its use of cinematography.  While most heritage films sell the spectacle of historical detail with extravagant costuming and elegant production design, the Focus Features version allows the medium of film itself to be the spectacle.  Although much work has been done on the ideologies of the heritage genre, the role of cinematography in transmitting those ideologies has never been placed entirely at the forefront of the discussion.  Through the example of Pride & Prejudice, I would like to focus on what cinematography can bring to the heritage genre and its variations.


A brief explanation of the heritage film’s cinematographic techniques is necessary here to both establish the genre and illustrate Wright’s departures.  First, because the genre wants the viewer to get lost in the presentation of the past, heritage cinematography is often influenced by the need to suspend reality.  Erica Sheen explains that the films aim for what is called “transparent technology,” using top-of-the-line technology to hide the evidence of camera and lighting in order to promote the illusion of a clear transmission of history (20).  As a result, as Claire Monk points out, the heritage film is often “aesthetically conservative” and “uncinematic” in its filming techniques:  the genre “favour[s] a static pictorialism rather than making the fullest use of the moving image” (“British Heritage-Film” 178).  Thus the cinematography of heritage film often has more in common with still photography than most motion pictures, as if noticeably mobile camerawork draws too much attention to twentieth-century technology and might distance the viewer from the period setting.


In heritage film, the primary goal of the cinematographer is usually to integrate the lavish sets and costuming of the period into the framing of shots.  Higson notes that in this genre there is a “preference for long takes and deep focus, and for long and medium shots, rather than for close ups” (“Re-presenting” 117); this method of shooting maximizes production design by keeping it in focus and prominent in the frame at all times.  Furthermore, Higson states that “the camera is characteristically fluid, but camera movement is dictated less by a desire to follow the movement of characters than by a desire to offer the spectator a more aesthetic angle on the period setting and the objects that fill it” (117).  The heritage film’s main attraction, then, is its historically accurate and highly detailed costuming and production design, with cinematography present invisibly to aid the viewer in observing the spectacle of historical detail. 


These limitations in cinematography and the general backlash against the heritage industry have resulted in the emerging trend of the anti-heritage film, a trend to which the Focus Features version of Pride and Prejudice is more closely aligned.  The anti-heritage film—a term coined by Claire Monk to discuss films like Carrington, a biopic about artist Dora Carrington and writer Lytton Strachey, and Orlando, Sally Potter’s reworking of Virginia Woolf’s novel—is often either a biopic or a literary adaptation, just like the traditional heritage film.  In fact, the anti-heritage film is actually a sub-genre of the heritage film but differs through its ability to confront more taboo, art-house subjects, such as the unconventional sexuality of the Bloomsbury group.  According to Monk, the anti-heritage film still “treats its audience to the visual, literary and performative pleasures associated” with the heritage film but also “pointedly seeks to distance itself, through various strategies, from the supposed conservatism” of the genre (“Sexuality” 33).  The anti-heritage film often tiptoes on the ideological divide between artistic innovation and loyalty to the heritage genre.


One of the easiest strategies through which the anti-heritage film can achieve this distance from heritage conservatism is its cinematography.  If the heritage film is known for its “characteristically fluid” camera movement, then the anti-heritage film moves its camera arbitrarily or focuses exclusively on the characters involved in the scene.  Monk describes one such camera movement in Carrington, where “the camera pointlessly circles its human subjects, as if under pressure to prove that it is not lingering on period spectacle” (“Sexuality” 33).  Of course, the period spectacle is still present, visible, and entertaining; the subterfuge of the anti-heritage film is that it does not do away with spectacle altogether but instead self-consciously downplays its own mise en scène as if to insist that there are more important elements of the film at play than production design.


Pride & Prejudice (2005) is not an anti-heritage film in an ideological sense; it does not use its marginal status as an independent film to challenge or question society (as Carrington, for example, did with conventions of sexuality).  As a major studio production with a PG rating, Pride & Prejudice safely follows the main arcs of Austen’s text without any serious deviation from topics considered socially appropriate, even by nineteenth-century standards.  Though its discussions are conventional and family friendly, the film does resemble the anti-heritage genre in its desire simultaneously to sell and reject heritage.  Once again, it is in its techniques of cinematography, borrowed from the anti-heritage genre, that this ambivalence is most visible.  In the Focus Features Pride & Prejudice, the visuals are used to take the text “upmarket” from previous video, 16 mm, or black-and-white film productions.  Joe Wright and Director of Photography Roman Osin take advantage of the larger scale of 35 mm film in order to attract bigger audiences through visual spectacle.  In particular, Osin’s imaginative and stylish shooting techniques not only contribute to the grander scale of the silver screen but also allow the film to distance itself from the heritage genre and position itself visually closer to the anti-heritage art house film.  Through its experimental and creative photography, the film gains its edge and appeals to a younger and wider audience.  Two main tactics illustrate the role of cinematography in elevating the scale of the new film and positioning it both within and against heritage:  the film’s treatment of ornate interiors and National Trust settings and its willingness to call attention to the camera technology together function in key dramatic scenes to emphasize the storyline over heritage spectacle. 


First and foremost, in Wright’s film, in the kind of scenes set in ornate interiors or elaborate ball scenes that signal the heritage genre, the cinematography instead uses dramatic and off-beat shots.  Several settings in Austen’s story, specifically the Netherfield, Rosings, and Pemberley estates, require extravagant interiors to delineate the class of certain characters that Elizabeth encounters.  In order to render an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century country house on film, productions either create interior sets from scratch or seek permission to shoot on location in one of England’s preserved National Trust houses.  These houses often bear the conservative label of the Thatcher administration that “created” them, a label that also aligns these settings with the conservative heritage genre.  In fact, National Trust houses have become so abundant in the heritage film that Higson claims they “constitute the iconography of the genre” (“Re-presenting” 115).  Though the Trust estates have become somewhat cliché through overuse, most productions still choose to take advantage of the realistic effects of shooting in existing houses rather than studio sets. 


Wright and his producers chose to do so as well, proudly declaring the film to be shot entirely on location (Production Notes 3).  Consequently, the production relies upon cinematography to visually distance Pride & Prejudice’s locations from those of previous heritage films.  Cinematographer Osin rejects shooting techniques that could be seen as lingering on period spectacle for new and bolder interpretations.  In scenes that take place at Netherfield, Mr. Bingley’s estate (shot at the National Trust property of Basildon Park), Osin’s stark framing emphasizes the stifling character of the house’s antiques and furniture.  His frame remains wide to capture the full size of the sprawling rooms and minimize the human figures; the composition emphasizes symmetrical furniture and character blocking.  These artistic decisions give the great house of Netherfield a feeling of detachment and oppression rather than viewing it through the admiring nostalgia of the average heritage film. 


These distancing techniques from the heritage value of National Trust houses, however, are only effective when they coincide with the film’s storyline.  While at Netherfield, Elizabeth is meant to feel alienated from the Bingley household but cannot react the same way at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s majestic estate in Derbyshire. After all, rather than feeling the palpable oppression of Bingley’s estate, at Pemberley Elizabeth must realize the true worth of Darcy through the tasteful beauty of his house.  In the scenes set at Pemberley, shot on location at Chatsworth House, a new way to reject heritage must be devised that corresponds to the film’s plot structure.  To accomplish this goal visually and to make the plot distinction clear, Osin substitutes the theatrical, one-dimensional staging of Longbourn and Netherfield with the 360-degree camera angles of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley.  At Pemberley, the camerawork is noticeably mobile, wandering more freely with Elizabeth in her future husband’s home than in any other location in the film.  Calling attention to the scene through unusual camera angles and constant camera movement achieves a defamiliarizing effect that emphasizes the importance of the moment for Elizabeth.  The scene opens with the camera on a crane in order to shoot from directly overhead, the frame looking down on Elizabeth and her party entering the house.  Successive shots follow Elizabeth on a steadicam or dolly as she meanders through the large and elegant rooms.  The 360-degree camera angles are mirrored by the decision to make even the props three-dimensional:  Darcy’s traditional portrait gallery is transformed into a series of statues for Elizabeth’s circumnavigation.  As she inspects the statue representing Darcy, the camera begins to circle around Elizabeth and the statue just as Carrington’s anti-heritage camera had circled its characters.  This movement, as it did in Carrington, keeps the focus on Elizabeth and her emerging feelings for Darcy and distances the viewer from Chatsworth’s ornate interior.  The more openly cinematic shooting of this scene not only reflects anti-heritage techniques but also rejects the “static pictorialism” of the heritage genre and calls attention to the technical aspects of filmmaking.


Other openly cinematic and creative shooting techniques—often coinciding with plot points concerning Elizabeth and Darcy—are used throughout the film to distance the viewer from heritage spectacle.  In the traditional heritage film, Andrew Higson explains, the “emphasis on spectacle” over narrative results in a lessening of the dramatic effects of the plotlines because “emotional engagement in a drama is sacrificed for loving recreations of the past” (“Re-presenting” 118).  In order for Wright to avoid this lessening and keep the focus on the emotional truths of the story, the film downplays heritage elements when emphasizing the drama of Elizabeth and Darcy’s storyline.  This rejection of heritage is not achieved by eliminating the display of production design when Elizabeth and Darcy have key scenes, but by using creative photography to distance the viewer from the heritage spectacle in the background. 


This tactic is seen most easily during Elizabeth and Darcy’s first dance at the Netherfield ball.  Of the entire film, the scenes set at the ball are those most closely resembling the heritage genre’s spectacle:  hundred of extras in extravagant gowns, makeup and hairdos parade through Netherfield’s ballroom, enjoying the dancing, wine, and delicacies that make up the ostentatious social lives of the upper classes in the heritage film.  When it is time for Darcy and Elizabeth to dance, the camera steps in to re-focus the viewer’s attention from the spectacle of the ball onto the romantic plotline.  During Elizabeth and Darcy’s dance, the turning point of their relationship, the camera, with no regard for the basic rules of cinematography, leaves its traditional set up and follows the two in their movements as they whirl and complete the complex figures of their dance.  In this scene, the camera periodically “crosses the line,” a cinematography no-no in which, by moving the camera placement more than 180 degrees from the previous location, the character’s positioning from right to left (or vice versa) in the frame reverses.  The result is a confused and displaced viewer.  This rule is rarely broken in cinematic production in general and almost never in a heritage film.


Screenwriter and actress Emma Thompson’s production diaries for Sense and Sensibility, for example, frequently mention her mystification over the mathematics of the rule, as well as the concern of the camera department not to break it.  She explains that when setting up a shot, “you have to avoid ‘crossing the line.’  This is a mysterious business. . . . If you cross it the effect can be disastrous—people are looking in the wrong direction, essentially, so the screen grammar goes to pot” (Thompson 260).  Later entries in the diary also emphasize the complexities of the line:  she explains the slow process of preparing to shoot while “the crew go cross-eyed trying to avoid crossing the line, which would appear, in this scene, to be in fifteen different places at once” (263).  This determination to follow the rule of the line illustrates exactly how important cinematography can be when attempting to make a viewer forget he or she is watching a film.  The heritage film attempts to make the viewer feel as if he or she is watching history, direct and unadulterated.  Calling attention to the technology used to transmit the historical story results in the “disastrous” consequences of renewing the viewer’s awareness of time and space. 


Thompson’s comments demonstrate how anomalous Osin’s choice to deliberately cross the line in Pride & Prejudice truly is.  When the camera does so, the film forfeits the illusion of “transparency” and openly admits the artifice of shooting techniques.  Osin allows this admission in order to privilege cinematic artistry and the emotional drama of the dance for Elizabeth and Darcy.  The acknowledgement of cinematic artifice also acknowledges the leap from the film’s chronological and spatial “realities” to a momentary imaginative dream space within the narrative in which a man and single woman dance alone and unsupervised; the unsettling transition of crossing the line is used to mask the movement from a crowded ballroom to a moment in which Darcy and Elizabeth move alone and entranced across the dance floor.  The artistic relevance of the dramatic moment here becomes more important than the spatial fidelity the heritage film often insists upon—in this moment, cinematography prioritizes drama over heritage.


Of course, anti-heritage cinematography works within in the framework of heritage cinematography; it differentiates key scenes through camerawork and framing but also gives the viewer regular access to the spectacle of heritage he or she desires.  The 2005 Pride & Prejudice follows this example of simultaneously rejecting and embracing heritage to attract a larger audience.  Although some reviews commented upon the uneven tone of the film, for the most part, the approach worked—the film made over 120 million dollars worldwide (“Box Office”), far more than the average heritage film.  Howard’s End, in contrast, was considered very successful but grossed less than a third of Pride & Prejudice’s figure (“Box Office”).  By rejecting heritage visually, Pride & Prejudice attracted the youth and mainstream audiences without alienating the majority of heritage fans.  The film created a new heritage hybrid by taking anti-heritage art-house shooting techniques and applying them to a mainstream, PG-rated film; it achieved the look of cutting-edge filmmaking through the single aspect of imaginative cinematography.  But this view of cinematography and its function within the heritage genre and its variations also illustrates that, overall, Cool Britannia exports, like those of Working Title, really just reflect old, conservative ideologies, updated and repackaged to attract a new generation. 



Works Cited


“About the BBC: Purpose and Values.”  BBC.  2007.  13 Feb. 2007

“Box Office/Business for Howard’s End (1992).”  Internet Movie Database.  2007.  15 Apr. 2007

_____.  “Box Office/Business for Pride & Prejudice (2005).”  Internet Movie Database.  2007.  15 Apr. 2007

Higson, Andrew.  “The Heritage Film and British Cinema.”  Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema.  Ed. Andrew Higson.  London: Cassell, 1996.  232-48.

_____.  “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film.”  Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism.  Ed. Lester Friedman.  Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.  109-29.

Monk, Claire.  “The British Heritage-Film Debate Revisited.”  British Historical Cinema: The History, Heritage, and Costume Film.  Ed. Claire Monk and Amy Sargeant.  London: Routledge, 2002.  176-98.

_____.  “Sexuality and the Heritage.”  Sight and Sound 5.10 (1995): 32-34.

_____.  “Underbelly UK: The 1990s Underclass Film, Masculinity and the Ideologies of ‘New’ Britain.”  British Cinema, Past and Present.  Ed. Justine Ashby and Andrew Higson.  London: Routledge, 2000.  274-87.

Production Notes.  “Pride & Prejudice: A Focus Features Release.” 2005.  17 Mar. 2007

Sheen, Erica.  “‘Where the Garment Gapes’: Faithfulness and Promiscuity in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.”  From Page to Screen: Adaptations of the Classic Novel.  Ed. Robert Giddings and Erica Sheen.  Manchester: MUP, 2000.  14-30.

Thompson, Emma.  The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film.  New York: Newmarket, 1995.

Wright, Joe, dir.  Pride & Prejudice.  DVD.  Focus Features, 2005.

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