Finding Elizabeth Bennet in Film

138837600982011704_eanWPsHY_bEmphasis on Elizabeth Bennet…

In a previous post, we discussed how Andrew Davies “created” the image of a very masculine and virile Darcy by adding scenes to the 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Some of us probably participated in “Darcy Loving Parties” at the time of this mini-series’ release.

Today, I would like to examine the visual shift of “desire” to Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 film. Casting the beautiful Keira Knightley in the lead role changed the focus. Choosing Ms. Knightley, who had established herself in Bend It Like Beckham, King Arthur, Love Actually, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, was designed to appeal to a younger and wider audience. Add Joe Wright’s emphasis on social realism to Knightley’s casting, and we have a film that grossed over $125 million worldwide.

Knightley’s casting could have backfired. Remember that Austen describes the character as, “She (Elizabeth) is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” and “But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face ….” and “Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form ….” Obviously, the casting of the equally lovely Rosamund Pike as Jane helped to “sell” the idea that Elizabeth’s fair face was less than her elder sister’s.

In the 2005 film, Elizabeth (Knightley) is found in EVERY scene, from the opening shot of her walking home while reading her book to the final kiss in the American version. The camera follows Elizabeth through the house. We see her world through Elizabeth’s eyes. When she walks away from Darcy at the Meryton assembly, everyone else pales, but our focus remains constant on Elizabeth. She is framed by the retreating camera lens.

When Elizabeth and Jane share secrets under the blankets, the audience is invited to join them. When she sensually traces Darcy’s belongings with her fingertips, we feel Elizabeth’s longing for a man she has allowed to slip through her fingers.

Through the camera, the viewer is always at Elizabeth’s side. We read over her shoulder in the opening scene. We enjoy the interplay between Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet regarding Mr. Collins’s pomposity. We hide behind a Netherfield column with her when her family’s actions bring humiliation. We observe Darcy’s approach through the morning mist as Elizabeth would, and we peek through the open door as she watches Darcy spin his sister around in circles.

Even when we have the occasional film seconds when Knightley is not in the framing, the scene pans to Elizabeth’s presence. It’s as if the camera leads us back to her. The maid carries items through the Bennet household and ends up in Elizabeth and Jane’s shared room. The intimate scene of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s bedroom guides us to another meeting between Jane and Elizabeth. Darcy’s appreciation of Georgiana’s pianoforte skills lead the viewer to Elizabeth’s accepting his invitation to Pemberley.

Knightley’s star power is “lessened” by her appearance in dingy, drab dresses and having her surrounded by a “working” home: animals, a barnyard swing, the kitchen, clothes lines, disarray. These techniques “muffle” Knightley’s beauty and allow the viewer to accept her as Austen’s most famous character. In contrast to the 1995 film, Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy is often shot from a distance and always fully clothed (minus the American ending again). Even his open-shirt appearance in the pre-dawn hours is viewed from Elizabeth’s point of view. He’s coming to her. She waits for him. Therefore, she remains the center of attention.

Wright’s “extra” scenes direct the desire to Elizabeth. Davies’s film showed Darcy in his bath and diving into a pond to increase Colin Firth’s role. Wright uses the near kiss from Darcy’s first proposal, the caress as Darcy helps Elizabeth to the carriage, and the seductive circling of Darcy and Elizabeth at the Netherfield Ball as part of the film’s sexual subtext. These and several other scenes amplify the desire for Elizabeth.

One part of the film that has received much criticism is the way this adaptation minimizes the relationship between Elizabeth and Wickham and between Elizabeth and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Wright chose to omit Austen’s diversions because Elizabeth is the one to be desired, and Elizabeth desires Darcy. In this version, we do not consider her flirtation with either man as serious possibilities. In the 2005 film, Wickham spends more time with Lydia than he does with Elizabeth.

Okay, it is your turn. Where else in the film is Elizabeth the point of desire? How has her character been created? I have other ideas, but I am waiting for our Austen Authors’ loyal fans to add their own opinions.

Holden, Stephen. “Marrying off Those Bennet Sisters Again, but This Time Elizabeth is a Looker.” Review of Pride and Prejudice. The New York Times. 11 Nov. 2005. {}


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in film, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Finding Elizabeth Bennet in Film

  1. Vesper says:

    I was too disappointed with this film to watch it more than once to consider your questions (not a great fan of the 1995 adaptation either) much preferred the 1970’s TV version (I think it was 1979)

  2. I try not to compare the different versions of the book. Each brings its strengths and weaknesses. It’s the old apples and oranges thing again.

  3. Pride and Prejudice (the book) is very much Elizabeth’s story. I like how in the 2005 movie we see everything from her point-of-view. When we see Darcy and Bingley walking up to the house, it is through the window where Elizabeth is looking. Even when we see Bingley practicing his proposal with Darcy, it’s from far away, as if Elizabeth caught a glance of them out there through the window. Inside jokes, the full gamut of her feelings; the audience is privy to all of this. Even Jane doesn’t see the lonely tear slide down her cheek before she blows out the candle for bed. The biggest drawback to this adaptation (in my opinion) is the ferocity of Elizabeth, and perhaps they gave her personality more edginess to appeal to a modern crowd, but I think her calm, self-assured, witty counterpart in the book makes her more desirable.

    • Your analysis is very appropriate. I taught Media Literacy in another lifetime. I purposely avoid the debate on whether the 1995 or 2005 version is the best. I dearly love both Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen – have seen nearly everything both men have done. Yet, like you, I see the 2005 movie placing the emphasis on Elizabeth again. Davies was correct in giving Mr. Darcy a life in his 1995 version. His audience was predominantly female, and most women familiar with the story are interested in what Mr. Darcy did with his life. Davies shows Darcy doing manly things (horseback riding, fencing, etc.), and he adds a bit of sex appeal with the bath scene and the dip in the lake. Joe Wright places the emphasis on Elizabeth. If you see Wright at the time, he was a very young director. The edginess is likely a sign of the times. We tend to remake the past through a lens lodged in the present.

  4. Ed says:

    I think the quotes you’ve picked to show that Lizzy isn’t supposed to be beautiful are misleading. It’s basically something Darcy utters at a time when he’s in a foul mood.

    The narrator, on the other hand, informs us that all the Bennet sisters except Mary are considered local beauties – rumour of this having even reached Mr. Collins. And with Lizzy being second only to Jane in this regard.

    As has already been mentioned in another comment, Pride and Prejudice is a story told from Elizabeth’s perspective and the 2005 adaptation is faithful to this. Following Darcy when he’s on his own – as the “Colin Firth in a wet shirt” version does – ruins several of the surprises built into Austen’s original version of the story.

    • The quotes are misleading, Ed. That is the mastery of Jane Austen. Her theme is “first impressions” or “false impressions.” She wants her readers to see Elizabeth as others see her. It is only Mr. Darcy who recognizes Elizabeth’s true worth. Starting with the opening line, which is a tongue-in-cheek statement of “Potential” theme, flawed impressions pollute the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This line is certainly a potential theme, but it personifies the theme of “first impressions.” As to Elizabeth being the lesser sister, Mrs. Bennet says of her second daughter, “She is not so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humored as Lydia.” With each we find a trail of falsehoods and misunderstandings.
      That being said, I was looking at the film from how the director and production staff crafted an image of Elizabeth Bennet, which fit the story line, but did not lessen Keira Knightley’s star power. I am a bit obsessed with teaching my students how to read media messages the same as they read a book.

      • I agree with Ed that Darcy’s comments are the result of his mood (and who wouldn’t be cranky while the eyes of the entire room are raking you up and down in covetousness?). It certainly doesn’t take Darcy long to admit Lizzy’s beauty. I disagree that Darcy is the only one who sees Lizzy’s true worth, though. Jane, Mr. Bennet, Col. Fitzwilliam, the Gardeners, all, I think, have an understanding and a respect for Lizzy’s character. Unless you are referring only to possible lovers in your statement, I would say there are many people who appreciate Lizzy’s worth.

  5. Gerri Bowen says:

    I like the A&E/BBC version. I wanted to liked the newer version, but didn’t.

    • Was it simply the way the story was crafted, Gerri? Obviously, with 6 hours of film, the 1995 version could spend more time in telling the story and making it follow Austen’s text in closer detail.

  6. I enjoyed this movie as a lovely costume piece. I did not feel it was true enough to the novel. The downplay of Lydia’s escapade with Wickham made much of the tension and meaning of the story virtually invisible. While Davies’ choice to narrow the focus so greatly may have proved attractive to viewers who were not familiar with the book, it did not really give them any of the “meat” of the story. It especially almost ignored the magnitude of Lydia’s slip, why it was significant to her sisters, and the value of Darcy’s service to Elizabeth. Not enough Jane, too much Andrew. It was a meringue instead of a meal.

    • Very aptly said, Lauren.
      When I wrote this post, I was thinking (as I am often accused of doing) of watching the way scenes are crafted. I am pleased for the dialogue from so many well versed viewers.

  7. eenayray says:

    I’m always perplexed more by what a screenwriter and/or director change than what they omit when translating a book from page to screen. I get that time constraints and mass marketing appeal tend to rule an adaptation, but please don’t give one character’s words or qualities to another, or remove/alter a character’s, well, characteristics. In the 2005 movie, I kept getting distracted by Elizabeth’s obvious disdain and snide comments for her mother, the shallow portrayals of secondary characters (Miss Bingley was never more than a few bon mots, several of which were not hers to make; and I won’t even touch on the devaluation of Col. Fitzwilliam, or Mr. BIngley as the fool), the watering-down of Wickham and Elizabeth and Wickham and Lydia, and the “romanticising” of both proposal scenes. It’s a beautiful movie to watch for the location choices and filming angles. The music selections are also pretty companions for the cinematography. If I knew nothing of the book I could appreciate the “girl power” vibe, or the “happily ever after” fairytale feel. Maybe. The actors didn’t really distract me or draw me in, although there were some big names with big talent. I found I wasn’t even comparing this version to any previous, except to laugh with a friend that we’ve possibly come full circle with bizarre departures from the book when considering the 1940 and 2005 versions. It just wasn’t Pride and Prejudice to me.

    • I appreciate your opinions. I can tell you for my students (who read Pride & Prejudice, saw the majority of the 1995 version, and all of this version), they preferred the 2005 version. As a teacher, if this film could hook a group and make them more aware of the book, then I am all for it. I will admit I am a BIG Matthew Macfadyen fan.
      The purpose of this post was to do a bit of media literacy and speak on the way a scene is set up to help the viewer draw quick conclusions.

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