It is a truth universally acknowledged that Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is one of the greatest films of all time. The film is a visceral experience; the tense social structures that keep Regency Period women from exerting free will or experiencing liberation have never been made more visceral. But then, neither have the relationships between the novel’s characters.
Quick disclaimer: Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is certainly not the novel’s most faithful. Puritans will recommend the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (even though this series also took liberties—Firth’s wet shirt scene anyone?). But 15 years after its cinematic release, fans are rediscovering the joy and passion of the 2005 adaptation.
Wright never intended to be the paragon of literature adaptation—in fact, when he was approached to direct Pride and Prejudice he hadn’t even read the book. And whilst he did read the novel after agreeing to direct, he didn’t bring with him an in-depth understanding of Regency era Britain or an encyclopaedic knowledge of Jane Austen’s works. Perhaps this was in his favour. The impossible goal of any movie adaptation is to recreate exactly the magic of the written word; to envelop the audience in a scene the same way that words on a page envelop their readers. But this creates a valley of dissatisfaction—avid fans of the literature are disappointed, and casual viewers are confused.
Wright uses the magic of film to weave the spirit of the original novel throughout the film and commands the language of cinema to create a depth that is typically seen only in written text. Wright makes Darcy’s repressed desire and affection for Elizabeth after her stay at Netherfield clear, with a single shot of his hand; at the ball when the crowd fades away and Elizabeth and Darcy are seemingly the only two people in the world, the tension is palpable.
Knightley’s performance as Elizabeth Bennet cements her title as queen of the period drama. At the start of the film Lizzy is headstrong, stubborn and content with her role playing second fiddle to her older sister Jane, as long as her family is safe and secure. When Charles and Caroline Bingley arrive to town Lizzy is thrilled for Jane that she may find true love and be financially secure (even if his sister is sour-faced and uppity). Everything about Lizzy’s world—from her love for her family, her friend Charlotte and (eventually) Mr Darcy; to her distaste for the economical nature of marriage, the deviant Mr Wickham and the braggadocious Mr Collins—is wonderfully evident in Knightley’s performance. Knightley is so masterful in her role that she is now seemingly synonymous with Elizabeth Bennet in the way Colin Firth is with Mr Darcy.
Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular pieces of classical literature of all time. But in Wright’s film, our protagonist Elizabeth is truly liberated. When Lizzy discovers her misunderstanding of Mr Darcy, we as the audience don’t see her as a naïve young woman brought down a notch—instead, we are excited for her to realise that Mr Darcy has been in love with her (albeit awkwardly) all along.
The film is filled with lingering close ups, and long shots on individual characters like Lizzy standing on top of a cliff in Derbyshire. Wright admits he used this technique of filming to emulate Austen’s method of characterisation: closely examining them and the little actions they make when they think they aren’t being watched. But one thing Wright does that separates this work from Austen is free the characters from dance halls, parlours and foyers and release them into the outside world.
Wright’s 2005 film is quintessential Austen with a healthy dose of mud, dirt and realism. In bringing the story of Pride and Prejudice to the outside world, he makes real our favourite characters, and one of the greatest love stories of all time.