Although dramatized for television several times (in 1938, 1952, 1967, 1980, and 1995), Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice has been a feature film only once before, in 1940, directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. Now, Pride & Prejudice makes its triumphant return as big-screen entertainment and a passion project for Working Title Films, Europe's leading film production company.
Working Title co-chairs and Pride & Prejudice producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner reflect, "People remember the two most recent television adaptations, but the only other film version, from 1940, emphasized romantic comedy. Over the decades, Jane Austen's central depiction of Lizzie and Darcy has been appropriated as the core of many other films - including a couple of our productions. We felt that it was time to bring Austen's original story, concentrating on Lizzie, back in all its glory to the big screen for audiences everywhere to enjoy."
Producer Paul Webster concurs, noting, "Pride and Prejudice has provided the template to so many romantic comedy movies that it comes as a surprise that no film proper has been made for 65 years. The two BBC versions are seminal -- the second one was the most successful BBC drama ever - but we were intent on making a big-screen version, one that doesn't conform to the television drama stereotypes of a perfect clean Regency world."
Bevan and Fellner comment, "Director Joe Wright's previous work, including Charles II: The Power & the Passion [aired in the U.S. as The Last King], had really impressed us. We met with him, and his vision of how to make the film and tell the classic Austen story was in tune with ours. For all of us there was no point in reinventing the story, as it is such a worldwide favorite. But we wanted to present the story as it was written, casting actors at the ages Jane Austen indicated, and giving them a depiction which avoided the 'chocolate box' presentations that television veers towards. Joe is a true romantic, yet he also shoots the story in a modern way and without subverting it."
The BAFTA Award-winning director's unique approach was understandable since, as he admits, "I had never read Pride and Prejudice, nor seen a television version. I come from a background of television social realist drama, and so I suppose I was a bit prejudiced against this material, regarding it as posh. But as I read the script adaptation, I became emotionally involved and by the end I was weeping. So I read the book, and discovered that what Jane Austen had written was a very acute character study of a particular social group. I saw that she was one of the first British realists. She had read the gothic literature which was fashionable at the time, and she turned away from that, and started writing what she knew, thereby inventing a new genre.
"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. Austen's characters are young people - Lizzie is 20, Darcy 28, Lydia 15. The emotions they experience are those of young people falling in love for the first time. I was moved by that and sought to convey it."
Wright also drew on his experience of directing The Last King. "What I learned from directing that, my first period piece, was that if you utilize the specifics of a period very precisely in tandem with emotional truths, it all becomes relevant to a modern audience."
While researching the late 18th century, Wright and his team kept records of discoveries and facts which were not spelled out in the film, but which enhanced their understanding of Austen's finely wrought characters. Wright remarks, "The establishment of England was looking across the Channel at the French Revolution - and wondering how it might affect them. The upper classes were frightened, and made the decision to assimilate more with the lower classes. Hence, the Assembly Rooms dances in village halls, which people of Darcy and Bingley's class would now attend. There, they would mingle with people they wouldn't previously have ever met socially. It was a whole new era for society. For young women, this was very exciting - like, say, Prince William turning up at a High Street disco. Suddenly, marriage prospects were widened. Bingley handles all this well, whereas his sister Caroline does not readily embrace the idea of these new associations."
Screenwriter Deborah Moggach, herself a novelist, notes, "I tried to be truthful to the book, which has a perfect three-act structure, so I haven't changed a lot. It is so beautifully shaped as a story - the ultimate romance about two people who think they hate each other but who are really passionately in love. I felt, 'If it's not broken, don't fix it.'
"The Bennet daughters in fact have to get married off or they face ruin; but, to a modern audience, these girls look pretty well-heeled! So we had to make their plight matter, in order that the audience cares about the outcome. They seem well-off - they live in a big house, with doting parents, they have a carriage and servants - but we had to convey that if they don't marry well, they could end their lives in penury, shunned by their own class of people and the lower classes too."
Moggach reflects, "I've emphasized it as being Lizzie's story. Unlike in the novel, she keeps her secrets to herself and they are a great burden to her. There are things she can't confide to her parents, her best friend Charlotte, or even her beloved sister Jane. Lizzie suffers alone. She sees her father neglecting her sisters - he ignores Lydia's follies, which facilitates her elopement - and she views her parents' marriage as a tragicomedy. Lizzie sees Charlotte, for the sake of security, marry the odious Mr Collins, and sees her beloved older sister sink into lovesick misery. She also wonders if her own chance of happiness is disappearing. As she keeps all this to herself, we feel for her more and more. The truest comedy, I believe, is born from pain."
"The Bennets could certainly exist today and, I'm sure, do. It's only the economics of the situation, the girls' dependence on finding a good husband, which are germane to the period. All the emotions are equally relevant today. Take Lizzie, for example. She has a mother who is often embarrassing; a best friend who disappoints; unrequited love for someone [Wickham] who turns out to be a complete cad; sisterly loyalties, jealousies, and squabbles; and she falls madly in love with somebody [Darcy] she can't admit she's in love with."
In her adaptation, Moggach paid extra attention to Jane Austen's dialogue. She explains, "I've sort of pulled a comb through the dialogue; of course, you can't reproduce Austen's fiercely wonderful dialogue in its entirety. But we've kept quite a lot of it, because it's like cooking with the very, very best ingredients. People love the book so much that they know it word for word. It was tempting sometimes to veer scenes towards a line that is so loved, one which you know that if people miss it they will be very upset."
Wright adds, "In the novel, Austen's characters are all very polite, waiting until the other person has finished speaking, before speaking themselves. But I know that, particularly in big families of girls, everyone tends to speak over each other, finishing each other's sentences, etc. So I felt that the Bennet family's conversations would be overlapping like that."
Moggach says, "One of the wonderful things about Jane Austen is that the canvas on which she painted was very small. Now, that has also been cited as a criticism of her work; she has been accused of ignoring other social classes of her time, and contemporary world events. But she did not deny it; she was observing the small piece of the world that she inhabited. For example, there is no scene in any of her books where men are alone in a room together. She either didn't know what they might be talking about, or she wasn't interested. The wider world is seen through tiny chinks. For instance, Caroline Bingley is reading a letter and she remarks, in the script, 'Lady Bathurst is re-decorating her ballroom in the French style. A trifle unpatriotic, don't you think?' I put that in as a tiny acknowledgement that all these events were going on in France.
"But my interest lies in the family dynamic and, after all, people don't read and enjoy Jane Austen for the historical overview. I've got three sisters, so I know what it is like being with lots of girls - and I had a father who felt out numbered by us. I had previously adapted Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate, and that was also lots of girls and another father who felt completely outnumbered. So I feel very much at home in this world of girls sort of giggling and sparring and sharing, having jealousies, etc."
The filmmakers were determined to shoot the film completely on location in the U.K., where the camera would have the luxury of seeing outside from inside and vice versa, and could actually follow the characters indoors and outdoors. An 11-week shooting schedule was blocked out, and Groombridge, a moated 17th Century mansion, was chosen to be Longbourn, the Bennets' house, where the only tranquillity is to be found in Mr. Bennet's library. Webster notes, "It is quite unusual for a movie this size to be shot entirely on location. Part of Joe's idea was to try to create a reality which allows the actors to relax and feel at one with their environment." The approach proved viable early on; cast members, instead of retiring to movie trailers between scenes, would head into their own Groombridge bedrooms.
In seeking to avoid what he has referred to as "the picturesque tradition," Wright comments, "I believe that when people do period films they are reliant on paintings from the period, because there is no photography. But in a painting, everything is formally composed; it's not real life. Then they do wide shots to show off the period detail of the sets. I think that the detail is in the small things, like crumbs on a table, or flowers in a vase. Austen's prose gave me many visual references for the people in the story, so I used a lot of close-ups of them, too. I also tried to cut out carriage shots. In a modern-day film, it's not very interesting to see people simply get in a car and drive away, so why should it be more interesting to see people arriving and leaving in carriages? There are a lot of period film clich'es; some of them are in the film and some are not, but for me it was important to question them."
To hew as closely as possible to the ages of the characters as specified by Austen, the filmmakers felt they would be going where the previous film version had not. Webster explains, "In the previous film, Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson were in their mid-30s, so the whole notion of this experience being their first love was lessened."
Elizabeth Bennet is a character who has been strongly identified with, and cherished, by several generations. Keira Knightley describes her as "every girl's dream." Even so, Joe Wright admits, "I originally hadn't considered someone as beautiful as Keira. I was looking for someone who didn't fit the normal feminine conventions, and was bright and slightly difficult. I figured Lizzie Bennet would be quite difficult to live with; she's tough-minded and questions everything all the time.
"When I met Keira, I realized that she asks questions of herself and other people, and is really a tomboy. She has a lively mind and a great sense of humor. During shooting, she kept on surprising me. What does one look for in an actor? Originality of thought; somebody who is able and willing to give their heart to what they are doing, and is able to really listen to the other actors. Keira did all of that, and was a hard worker."
Knightley was keenly aware of the pitfalls inherent in playing such a longstanding heroine. She says, "There was a huge pressure taking on the role; she's one of the best roles in literature for girls. If you're an actress and you get the chance to play her you definitely can't say no. But it is scary, because when you read Pride and Prejudice, you feel like you own her; I know I did, and I'm sure everybody feels the same way and that they'll have a very clear idea of who Elizabeth Bennet is. So this was an exciting challenge.
"Jane Austen's own critique of her the book was that she felt it was too lighthearted. She felt the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth wasn't realistic enough. We took heed of her comments and tried to bring to the movie a realism that perhaps isn't so much in the book, bringing out the idea that these sisters are two girls who have lived with each other and slept in the same bed for so many years now. They have annoyances and such, but they love each other and stand by each other, enjoying each other and sharing each other's pain."
Knightley adds, "It was great being directed by Joe because he's got a very clear vision of what he wants the entire piece to be like. So he can also say, 'You can stray a tiny bit, that's all right.' And I think you have to do that to really own a character, to possess the role. It's a different process to do a film based on a book, because the inner dialogue of your character is all written down. So if there was ever a scene where I was having problems, we would go back to the book and in some way or another it was right there. But, equally, you have to take a stand and say 'OK, I know it says this in the book, but you know what? I can't do it like that because it doesn't make sense as far as this goes, so I'm going to have to change that slightly.' And then you have to be brave and just do it."
Casting Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in the new movie might have posed even more of a challenge for the filmmakers. However, as Wright reminds, "I had never seen the TV dramas or the film, so I was able to look for the Darcy I had in my head -- and Matthew Macfadyen was the only one for me. Darcy is 28, and Matthew was 29 when we were shooting. I had no interest in casting just a pretty boy; Darcy is more interesting and complicated than that. He's a young man who has less than ideal social skills and a huge responsibility. His parents have died and left him with a massive estate and a younger sister to take care of, and my sense is that he has had to grow up too fast. Matthew has incarnated Darcy as that complicated layered person who isn't easy in his skin and who isn't easy to love, yet who is a good person with a sense of honor and integrity. Matthew, unlike many actors, is not vain, and so was not afraid to be disliked by an audience at the beginning of the story; we have to dislike him because we are seeing him through Lizzie's eyes. And we grow to love him as Lizzie does."
Knightley confides, "When I went in to read with Matthew, I was so blown away that I virtually couldn't get my lines out. I just kept staring at him thinking, 'What the hell happened between you walking in as Mathew and you starting to read?' Because he actually did turn into Darcy, and the scenes flowed." Wright adds, "Keira and Matthew were just wicked together."
"Matthew's a man who is sexy in the mode of Richard Burton, with a bit of Alan Rickman," muses Knightley. "You need to see that kind of rugged beauty in Darcy, knowing that here was a man who walks across fields, climbs trees, and very much manages his own estate. With Matthew, you can see that etched across his face, yet he's also got this extraordinary vulnerability. On the page, Darcy reads as being very cold, but Mathew is so vulnerable through his big manliness that he gives Darcy extra qualities."
Macfadyen sees the character as "very buttoned up; he's very prideful and haughty. Some would say, 'He's arrogant'; I would say, he's misunderstood. And a fantastic part to play! The material is so very richly drawn. Of course, always looming are those who played the part before you - Olivier and Colin Firth - but that exists with lots of roles. If you worry about that, then you'll never take on a role in Shakespeare! Every actor brings something different to the roles they play.
"Communication between the sexes is probably as confusing now as it was in Jane Austen's time. Apart from any physical attraction, Darcy is enchanted by the liveliness of Lizzie's mind and her mercurial qualities. The first time they meet, he remarks to Bingley that she is not handsome enough to tempt him to dance. She overhears this and throws it back at him with such winning wit that he is immediately enchanted. He is a serious young man, with huge responsibilities for his estate, and he has never met a young woman like her. When he proposes to her, first explaining how unsuitable a match she is, he makes that explanation out of integrity, not out of arrogance."
Wright clarifies, "In the beginning, Darcy can't deal with the fact that he fancies Lizzie, so they are like children in a playground - in the way that kids pull hair because they don't know how to express their feelings. He needs her to tease him and to be able to lighten up with her. She in turn needs someone who has as much integrity, honesty, and goodness as she has. These are the foundations for what will hopefully be a happy life together.
"They have a huge effect on each other's lives from the moment they meet. When he proposes in the rain, she says that she knew as soon as she met him that he was the last person she would consider marrying. If you meet someone with whom there is no chemistry at all, why would you think about marriage at all? And while she is thinking how much she dislikes him - she is still thinking about him."
Getting two-time Golden Globe Award winner Donald Sutherland to play Mr. Bennet, the lone male in a household full of women, was a thrill for Wright. The director states, "Donald is simply a legend. When I was a kid, I was an actor in a film called Revolution, more or less a glorified extra, and I used to watch him. Plus Don't Look Now is one of my all-time favorite films. Watching him recently with Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain, I realized that he could access the tenderness that was required for Mr. Bennet. He did that - and he seemed to have a ball as the patriarch of this gorgeous bunch."
Sutherland remarks, "I love Jane Austen, although I hadn't read the novel for 40 years. Joe wrote me a letter. He said there was a quality of me in Cold Mountain that he wanted for the father of these girls - somebody, he said, who didn't get married until he was 45. He had to wait until his father died before he married, and then he had 5 daughters. It's worth noting that none of them could inherit his estate because the law then was that the estate must pass to a male heir, in this case a distant relative [Mr. Collins]. All very intriguing to play."
Two-time Academy Award nominee Brenda Blethyn took on the role of Mrs. Bennet. Wright notes, "It's a tricky part, as she can be very annoying; you want to stop her chattering and shrieking. But Brenda has the humor and the heart to show the amount of love and care Mrs. Bennet has for her daughters."
Blethyn's take on the character is, "Mrs. B has a very serious problem, which nobody except she is taking seriously; she has five daughters, for whom she has to find husbands, and eligible men are not so common around Longbourn. When the militia are billeted in the village of Meryton, she's delighted."
To ensure authenticity among the latter, the production employed members of the Napoleonic [Re-enactment] Society for the scenes of the militia arriving and leaving the village (filmed in Stamford, Lincolnshire). It was at the start of the 19th Century that the British Army commenced a 15-year campaign against Napoleon's Army. Extras were schooled in how to march and wear the uniforms. The county militia would have mainly been made up of volunteers, with the officers being of a higher social status (those who had a stake in the particular county, perhaps a large parcel of land). It was seen as the duty of the upper-class male to serve his county for a time in this manner.
The purpose of the county militia was twofold: to act as the second line of resistance, should a foreign army invade the British Isles, reassuring the people of their safety amid rumors of invasion; and to discourage any possible riots or sedition, as the Crown and Parliament were ever wary that some subjects might decide to follow the French or the Americans and declare themselves to be a republic.
Women's own motions for independence were all but inconceivable. Echoing Donald Sutherland's comments, Brenda Blethyn reminds, "Mrs. Bennet's concerns are compounded by the fact that women had no status then. The inheritance laws mean that her husband's estate, her family's home, will be inherited by a distant cousin when Mr. Bennet dies. That means, she and her daughters could be cast out to fend for themselves - or even sent to the workhouse. So the solution is for at least one of her daughters to marry a man wealthy enough to take care of all the family. She is trying to solve the problem as best as she knows how."
"I believe Mrs. B came into her own marriage with a very small dowry, and that they married for love - which, as the story shows, was not so common then. You can see that they feel something for each other. He is tolerant and kindly, although he cultivates interests outside the drama of his home - books, plants, wildlife...She is sometimes an embarrassment to her family, but then too all parents can be embarrassing." To play the Bennet sister who is perhaps most affected by her mother's efforts, Wright comments, "I was looking for the opposite of Keira in a way; an actress who could portray the period ideal of what a woman should be, since Jane is hailed as the beauty of the family. Rosamund Pike was simply perfect and is wonderful in the role."
Of her character, Pike says, "As the oldest Bennet girl, Jane would have had a lot of responsibility bringing up the younger girls, so she has a slight maternal instinct. But I didn't want to play her as this very demure and slightly dull character. People say, 'Oh Jane's a bit staid.' I play her as someone who laughs a lot. We wanted the whole Bennet family to be a household that's filled with laughter and movement; if you've got lots of girls all living in a house that they are beginning to outgrow, then you get this sort of farmyard whirlygig of a family."
Wright adds, "The sisters all had to have similar characteristics so you can see that they come from the same stock and they all find each other funny."
Pike adds, "Unlike Lizzie, Jane likes to think the best of people. She has found that the easiest way to get through life is to think that people are nice and good, and not to be suspicious about other people's negative motives. Jane doesn't have much pride or prejudice, really...
"Jane Austen wrote such a sensationally romantic story. It got to me all the time during filming. It's deeply romantic, and I think in this day and age we need films with romance at their core out there. They can light people up."
The lone American in the cast is Jena Malone, whose empathetic portrayals of young women convinced the filmmakers that she was the top choice to play Lydia Bennet. Malone felt that she well understood the teenager, noting, "Lydia's focus is purely ribbons and soldiers. She's 15 years old and is in love with the idea of being in love, spending her time thinking about the clothes she'll wear when she meets boys. She can't really approach a lot of men, only those of a suitable social status. That's why she finds the idea of going to the balls so exciting; it's the only place where she could dance with such a range of boys, even the tradesmen's sons. Her day-to-day life was very simple, because she had no housework to do and no school to attend - her education is being neglected. Because she is the youngest of the Bennet sisters, she has more freedom than the others.
"Yet, her options are so much different than young women's today. For Lydia, the only way to secure a future is to get married; otherwise you would live with your family or leave home and be a governess to someone else's family - which gives you a lower social status, and no hope of marrying anyone of your own particular class. Many women became much more pragmatic about reasons for marrying, and the idea of marrying for love even came to be regarded as frivolous. But Lydia, being in love with love, is overjoyed to elope and fails to foresee any of the disastrous consequences, intending to be able to lord it over the other sisters that she is the only married one."
Rounding out the Bennet sisterhood, screen newcomers Carey Mulligan and Talulah Riley won the roles of Kitty and Mary Bennet, respectively. Wright remembers, "This was the first film job for both, and they were both huge Jane Austen fans. So they were so excited about the whole process that it created a heightened atmosphere for the family sequences."
Another Jane Austen fan realizing a dream by participating in the film is Tamzin Merchant. She was cast as Georgiana, Darcy's sister, after writing a letter to the casting director and
explaining how she was perfect for the part. After meetings, Tamzin was indeed offered the role, even though she had no previous acting experience. The novice threw herself into the work, even learning to play the piano selections that Georgina would be playing on-screen.
The role of Darcy's formidable aunt Lady Catherine de Bourg necessitated someone with considerably more acting experience - and the filmmakers felt fortunate indeed to secure the participation of Judi Dench. Wright remembers, "On our first day of filming, we shot a dining room table scene. Now, as any director will tell you, that is difficult. And, with Dame Judi Dench at the head of the table on the first day of my first feature, I was terrified. But she is a complete professional and a genuinely nice person; it was a joy to watch her transform herself into such a difficult woman."
"She's unspeakable," Dench says of her character. "She's autocratic, suspicious, and pretty tricky; she wants Darcy to marry her own daughter. I knew the book well. Do you know, it was written when Jane Austen was so young. Then she put it in a drawer and left it there for years...It is a masterpiece and a great love story. I was pleased to be offered the part, and I wanted very much to work with Joe. He is 33 years old, and it's very nice when you're my age to be asked by somebody so young to do something for him. He has integrity."
Behind the scenes - literally - Wright called upon a frequent collaborator, production designer Sarah Greenwood. He offers, "Sarah and I have a professional shorthand and understand each other. I always involve her as early as possible, and together we worked to inject reality into the locations for Pride & Prejudice."
Another early decision for the director was the approach to wardrobe, in tandem with costume designer Jacqueline Durran (late of Vera Drake). He explains, "I find empire line dresses are very ugly, so I did some research. Although the novel was published in 1813, Jane Austen wrote her first draft of Pride and Prejudice, then called First Impressions, around 1797. So we used the fashions of the earlier period, where the waist on dresses was lower and more flattering. When Caroline Bingley appears, she would obviously be wearing the latest creation. But Mrs. Bennet's dresses are earlier than 1797, and Lady Catherine's are even earlier, because those two would have best clothes from previous years in their wardrobe. Jacqueline, working with Mike Leigh, comes from a very character-oriented British realist style of filmmaking, and her use of fabric and color for this movie was exquisite."
Keira Knightley remarks, "When the men in the cast stood around in their normal clothes, we Bennet girls could chat away to them. As soon as they wore their costumes, the sisters, myself included, were suddenly faced with these sexy creatures and we turned into giggling idiots who couldn't string a sentence together. They were so well-costumed!"
Joe Wright concludes, "I think that what Jane Austen wrote is a fairy tale on some levels. I believe that all the best fairy tales are based in social realism, have inherent emotional truths which remain relevant through the generations, and are worth telling over and over again. Today, people are still falling in love, people are still prejudiced against others, and people are still too proud on occasion. We like to be told that love exists, and this story is a joyful and satisfying affirmation of that. Pride & Prejudice is a love story about how to try to understand one another."