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A Solitary Classic: Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice Turns 15

Jane Austen’s masterpiece captures the joys of solitude and love

Focus Features 11.13.2020
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In 2005, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice offered an exuberant new take on an enduring classic. At the time, Entertainment Weekly exclaimed that Wright’s film with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy “makes the past feel as swirling and alive as the present.” Fifteen years later, the movie still brings to life Austen’s romance with, as USA Today exclaimed, "an exquisite blend of emotion and wit.” But it also offers insights that speak directly to the world we live in today. In 2005, Wright pumped up the volume on Austen’s period piece, making it according to the Washington Post “a boisterous, loud, dance-mad kind of place.” Today, when the film’s fine balls, elegant dinner parties, and intimate conversations feel just outside the bounds of social distancing, we can find comfort in Lizzie’s love of solitude and self-reflection.

To celebrate the film’s 15th anniversary, we pay tribute to the Pride & Prejudice's appreciation of solitude as well as love. “Austen’s best-known characters" notes one writer, show off “their habit of taking time alone to think about things.” In the novel's first line—"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”—Austen states her themes of money and matrimony. But as an independent woman in possession of a good mind, Lizzie also demonstrates the solitary joys to be found in reading books, country walks, playing music, and getting lost in art. 

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Former Focus CEO James Scahmus explores Pride & Prejudice's originality. 

Books | “There is no enjoyment like reading.”

Constrained by the economic and social conventions of their times, Austen’s heroines often found independence through reading—both as a form of education and solitary enjoyment. In the novel, Lizzie deftly deflects Lady Catherine’s rebuke “without a governess you must have been neglected” by exclaiming, “We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary.” Wright illustrates Lizzie’s love of books by making them an integral part of her life. Indeed, the film begins with Lizzie walking alone through a morning field with a book in hand. The scene’s inside joke is that  she is reading a novel called First Impressions, which was Austen’s original title for Pride and Prejudice.

Lizzie (Keira Knightley) is introduced with a book in hand in Pride & Prejudice clip.

Nature | "I’m very fond of walking.”

In the novel Pride and Prejudice, Austen continually reminds us of Lizzie’s “love of solitary walks.” Despite being a social creature with talent for witty repartee, Lizzie often prefers solitude. “Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours; whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief; and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections,” thinks Lizzie in the novel. In the film, when Darcy asks, “May I see you to the village,” Lizzie responds, “Oh no! I’m very fond of walking.” Through Lizzie’s walks, one scholar notes, "nature itself becomes an unnamed but essential character to the audience’s understanding of the story,” as well as to Lizzie's understanding of herself. To illustrate her solitary connection to nature, Wright added a stunning scene with Lizzie standing joyously alone on the Peak District’s Stanage Edge.

Lizzie (Keira Knightley) on the cliff of Stanage Edge in Pride & Prejudice clip.

Music | “No excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice.”

In the film, Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly) notes that for a woman to be considered “accomplished” she “must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages.” While such talents are often shown off, as when Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Judi Dench) commands her to play, Lizzie’s joy is more often experienced in playing for herself. Austen herself cherished the practice she had “several hours every morning before others in her family began their day.” For herself and her characters, playing music was not just an attractive accessory to show off to potential suitors, but, as one scholar suggests, part of “the maintenance of a rich domestic life.” Indeed, Lizzie learning from Darcy’s sister he think she plays “so well” speaks volumes to her about his feelings.

Mr. Darcy appreciates his sister Georgiana’s and Lizzie’s musical talents in Pride & Prejudice clip.

Art | “'Til this moment I never knew myself.”

In a world governed by polite conversation and strict social conventions, Lizzie’s solitary communion with art provides her the opportunity to glimpse her unadorned emotions. On a trip to Pemberley with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners (Penelope Wilton and Peter Wight), Lizzie takes a tour of the estate’s art collection. Wright replaces the novel’s portrait gallery with the sculpture court at Chatsworth House, the estate that doubles for Pemberley in the movie. Contemplating Raffaelle Monti’s famed Veiled Vesta Virgin, a reclining sculpture of a nude Achilles, and a bust of Darcy (created for the film), Lizzie becomes lost in a solitary reverie. The sculptures of ancient heroes connect her to her own inner battles. As Pop Classic notes, “the use of the immediately recognizable dying Achilles in this scene brings out the emotional pain of the characters by introducing an element of physical pain into the audience's subconscious.” For a moment, we see what she feels about Darcy.

Lizzie contemplates Achilles' pain in Pride & Prejudice clip.

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