Pride and Prejudice is one of Jane Austen’s most flirtatious works, centering on the tendentiousness of romance and its characters’ apprehensions of marriage (despite the securities monogamy seems to offer). This curiosity is most intriguingly dealt with in film adaptation, as audiences are offered a visual representation of nuances and subtleties in Austen’s flirtatious language. As the narrative trajectory of Pride and Prejudice is concerned with the romantic uncertainty surrounding several of its characters, the 2005 Pride & Prejudice adaptation captures the psychological flirtatiousness and romantic ambiguity contained in Austen’s novel. In On Flirtation, Adam Phillips states that the flirtatious narrative, much like the flirt, defies the usual monogamous end, insinuating perpetual interest in “beginnings” without a vested concern in conclusions. While this condition is certainly an appealing scenario to some readers and viewers, Phillips notes “our preference for progress narratives can make flirtation acceptable only as a means to a predictable end . . .” (xvii). Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice offers an appropriate representation of a flirtatious narrative serving this particular purpose. Wright’s adaptation is constructed in a way that lends itself to that pleasurable uncertainty and “perpetual promising” reveled in by any self-respecting flirt. The flirtatiousness of the narrative is largely achieved through shot composition and its influence on point of view, depiction of subtleties indicating romantic interest (usually involving slight physical contact or erotically awkward silences), conventions of hiding/seeking and “the chase,” and even the continuation of the narrative somewhat beyond its inevitably monogamous conclusion.
Phillips writes, “Flirting creates the uncertainty it is also trying to control; and so can make us wonder which ways of knowing, or being known, sustain our interest, our excitement, in other people” (xviii). Austen’s Pride and Prejudice depicts flirtatious dynamics in a masterful way, including the inevitable conclusion of “pairing off” and marital bliss (at least in the case of Lizzy and Darcy—the “blissfulness” of Lydia and Wickham’s match is certainly suspect). Yet the text still succeeds in flirting with the reader’s expectations of each character as the novel’s events unfold. Wright’s Pride & Prejudice provides a prime example of this self-conscious, controlled uncertainty. There is something inherently less flirtatious about a perspective in film that purports to document the first and last word of every character interaction. A certain degree of mediation is required in order to gain a fuller sense of this flirtatious uncertainty. In this case, uncertainty is achieved through a focus on Lizzy’s particular perspective. While an omniscient narration in novel form can provide unmitigated insight into characters’ thoughts and motives, film (more specifically, film adaptations of Austen novels) often relays this information by transposing the omniscient narrator’s voice to the dialogue of a participant. Rather than fall back on such a conceit and risk coming off as cloying, Pride & Prejudice (2005) blends Lizzy’s perspective with a subtly omniscient view of the characters. In this sense, Wright’s adaptation effectively captures the flirtatious style and essence—with regard to its narrative perspective—of Austen’s novel.
The Flirtatious Camera
From the opening shots of the film, the audience recognizes Lizzy’s very significant role in the way she is framed and followed about by the camera. The style of these introductory scenes, however, suggests an inherent flirtatiousness in the visual narrative. The camera (most nearly signifying the viewers’ own placement “in” the film) wanders off through the Bennet household, parting with our heroine. The way that characters (Lydia and Kitty, Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet) thread in and out of the frame, and conversely the way that the camera wanders in and out of characters’ encounters and conversations, both tacitly encourage a sense that perhaps only the beginnings (or fragments) of these interactions are truly amusing and pleasurable to the audience. Narratively speaking, the function of these fluid tracking shots is to capture bits and pieces of behavior and conversation in an almost wayward way, as the audience becomes engrossed in this notion of uncertainty. As Phillips states, “In flirtation you never know whether the beginning of the story—the story of the relationship—will be the end; flirtation, that is to say, exploits the idea of surprise” (xix).
Due to the methodical “wandering” capabilities of the camera itself, the audience’s view of the narrative is driven by a sense that only the “juiciest” and most amusing goings-on—at the ball, for example—will be revealed, just as an actual participant would casually stroll through an event, consciously and unconsciously absorbing what is most stimulating. The Netherfield ball is depicted through a lengthy tracking shot. As the camera’s continuous movement in these scenes “decides” which characters to focus upon, the audience attains the visual and emotional perspective of a passing observer. Yet by weaving in and out of scenarios visually, the narrative is manipulated in such a way that the audience retains only what is the most conducive to character relationships and development. It is worth noting that the particular conversations and interactions at the Netherfield ball are not lifted from the novel’s text, but rather imparted visually. Specifically, we see Darcy in the background as Lizzy walks toward the foreground—he is clearly watching her, and the viewer may be convinced that he will approach her. However, he decides against it and exits the frame, which is crowded with people. Watching, following, “accidentally” colliding—therein lies the spontaneity and changeability of the flirt and the flirtatious narrative. Later on during the ball, Darcy suddenly appears at the edge of the frame, Lizzy facing him on the left in a confrontation of both visual polarity and emotional repellence. His abrupt request to dance is surprising, as the viewer has no warning of their meeting from that particular perspective.
Admittedly there are moments in the film when the camera performs feats that no human observer could muster (wafting ghost-like past the windows of Longbourn, peeking, into the interior of each room and catching snippets of characters tête-à-tête). In a way, the camera’s placement and movement in these scenes imparts something of the “controlled uncertainty” mentioned by Adam Phillips. The audience gains both a socializing view of the characters and a more intimate and flirtatious type of omniscience, as the viewer can only peek through the window for as long as the camera will hold its position. In this particular sequence, the viewer is allowed a view of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship, depicting the bemusement Mr. Bennet derives from flirtatiously interacting with his wife. In terms of the definition of flirtation put forth by Phillips, Mr. Bennet is one of the most flirtatious characters in the novel, often maintaining a sly, teasing demeanor of detachment from Mrs. Bennet and her preoccupation with matchmaking. When a meeting is proposed between Mr. Bennet and Mr. Bingley, the eligible bachelor, Mr. Bennet states, “‘You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party’” (4). Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet certainly exhibits this façade of amused detachment from his wife’s and daughters’ exploits but also displays more overtly flirtatious behavior in “private” scenes with his wife, highlighted by the film’s voyeuristic camera-work.
Since beginnings rather than endings are the most appealing aspect of a flirtatious narrative, a great deal of emphasis is placed on first meetings and impressions. Jane and Mr. Bingley’s instant attraction is apparent through their nervous chatter and abundance of furtive glancing during the dances. When Lizzy first meets Wickham, she is clearly taken by him—daring is the Lizzy who “checks out” Wickham’s rear (as she inconspicuously does) while in the ribbon shop. Despite the fact that a romance between Lizzy and Mr. Wickham never comes to fruition, the narrative certainly does not overlook her initial attraction to him—ironically quite the contrast to her first impression of Mr. Darcy. Again, the film works to exploit the idea of uncertainty by emphasizing beginnings within the narrative, thus contributing to its flirtatiousness.
Much of the flirtatious narrative structure of Wright’s Pride & Prejudice lends itself to the depiction of subtle contact between characters not otherwise made explicit in the novel or included in other film adaptations. By capturing actual expressions of what we in today’s society consider to be acts of “flirtation” or displays of romantic interest, the adaptation not only aggrandizes that sense “controlled uncertainty” but also clarifies character relationships for modern movie-goers. In the ball at Netherfield, for example, Bingley secretly touches Jane’s skirt as they brush past the frame. This short glimpse of such a discreet (yet markedly noticeable) action amidst a great deal of activity at the ball renders it especially significant and reveals in a small way that Mr. Bingley is quite interested in Jane romantically, yet it also foretells that he will incur some difficulty in making his intentions known to her.
The movement of the camera and placement of these actions throughout the film allows the audience an enriched and rather unabashed view of the characters and their ability or inability to convey admiration outwardly (within the realm of appropriateness, considering the era’s social codes). Several of these actions inadvertently conveying interest arise out of the contact between Lizzy and Darcy. One such instance occurs as he assists her into her carriage. A quick reaction shot of each is provided, indicating suspicious bewilderment on Lizzy’s part and feigned stoicism on Darcy’s, and as Darcy briskly walks away, a close shot of a very telling hand-spasm reveals a glimpse into his staunchly guarded feelings for Lizzy. Their dance at the ball at Netherfield is also particularly telling—while their conversation shuns the usual politeness and pleasantries, the way in which they dance suggests a mutual gravitation toward one another (especially evident when the rest of the dancers vanish from the shot, leaving only Lizzy and Darcy coupled). These subtleties are especially essential to the central relationship of the novel and bolster the flirtatiousness of the narrative.
Just as brief physical contact can convey some degree of romantic interest, there are several instances of long, awkward pauses and silences that serve to increase narrative tension and flirtatious uncertainty, primarily concerning the relationship between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy. Tension arises during Darcy’s unexpected arrival at the Collins household at Hunsford, where Lizzy is visiting. He bursts into the room abruptly and manages to eke out a few cursory pleasantries—the shot-reverse-shot reactions are agonizingly long and the staggering silences only augment the awkwardness. As Phillips states, “Flirtation, if it can be sustained, is a way of cultivating wishes, of playing for time. Deferral can make room” (xix). Wright’s Pride & Prejudice almost literally puts this idea into effect with its assortment of deferrals—even incredibly long stationary shots of Lizzy staring blankly at her reflection in the mirror indicate uncertainty in both in Lizzy’s consciousness and the narrative itself. The most obvious implementation of the “silent moment” that brings the narrative to a higher plane of tension occurs when Darcy confronts Lizzy about his “ardent” feelings of love for her. Their placement outdoors in the rain renders the scene more uninhibited than if they were confined indoors. The way that Darcy delivers his confession in a hurried tumult only intensifies the silences to follow, and the near-kiss without an actual payoff is perhaps the most flirtatious, time-stopping, breath-arresting moment in the film—deferral, indeed.
Flirting with Monogamy
Following this paramount event in the plot and the provocative letter from Mr. Darcy, Lizzy and Darcy are engaged in something of a chase. After the initial attraction between two people has been established (by at least one of the participating parties), the interaction can potentially become a chase/being chased scenario, or in particular instances, hiding and discovering (yet another example of deferral and playing for time). The letter figures as a revelatory inciter of the chase. After incurring the mortification of misjudging Darcy, Lizzy attempts to avoid him at all costs. When she inadvertently finds herself wandering through Pemberley, she takes on the role of voyeur long enough to be caught by him—and in typical fight-or-flight fashion, Lizzy flees. She is caught, and the “game” becomes very apparent. In the following scene, Lizzy hides from Darcy (when he approaches Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to inquire after her). Her concealment isn’t born out of dislike but rather provides a capricious means by which she can avoid confronting her feelings for him. Eventually, the narrative exhausts its tendency to defer the inevitable end, and Darcy and Lizzy are brought together. The various stages of their relationship leading up to their marriage, however, are anything but straightforward, therefore providing a rather flirtatious construction of a story that resolves with monogamy.
It may be rather surprising to those already acquainted with Pride and Prejudice (and Austen’s other novels) that the film, once Darcy and Lizzy’s courtship is resolved, depicts their married life in the final scene. While previous adaptations conclude with an acceptance of the proposal (1940 version) or a jaunty carriage ride following the completion of their vows (1995 version), Wright’s adaptation—at least in the version seen in U. S. theaters—pushes further into the narrative beyond the typical monogamy-as-conclusion. While it may seem a simple confirmation of their love and doesn’t really serve to further resolve the narrative itself, the short scene projects a further sense that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy will continue their fondness for each other on a flirtatious level—despite the fact that the ends have already been achieved. The very nature of their conversation relates to their future together and what Lizzy would have Mr. Darcy call her on specific occasions. The playfulness with which Lizzy indicates her “incandescent happiness,” coupled with Darcy’s toying with addressing Lizzy affectionately as his wife, offers the audience a romantically satisfying view of their marriage. The fact that the film extends to include a charming, flirtatious scene after the actual marriage is complete indicates the narrative’s investment in flirtatiousness, as typically the tale would acquiesce to the settled conventions of monogamy and thusly conclude the narrative.
When themes of love and romantic relationships are involved, those satisfied with Aristotelian storytelling find a neatly-tied ending in marriage a near requirement for satisfaction derived from the narrative. The flirtatiousness of Austen’s narrative is immanent in Wright’s film, in terms of its visual perspectives, depiction of subtle actions indicating romantic interest, and the additional scene occurring slightly beyond what is provided by the novel and other film adaptations. Lizzy’s precarious position at the edge of the cliff is an iconic shot. Joe Wright’s adaptation quite literally offers us a view of her significant “plunge” into monogamy, reminding us that Jane Austen offers perhaps more satisfaction in the chase rather than the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1932.
Phillips, Adam. On Flirtation. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Pride & Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. DVD. Focus Features, 2005.