In the final chapters of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, there’s a moment where Mr. Darcy reflects on his feelings for Elizabeth. He says he couldn’t fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words that laid the foundation for them. “I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun,” he famously says. I struggle with the same dilemma. I can almost never put to words my immense, almost disorienting love for Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.
The opening scene, led by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s ‘Dawn’, follows Elizabeth returning home from the fields, buried in the pages of a book. Keira Knightley is a sophisticated Lizzie from the very beginning, and embraces the character as if her own. We’re soon introduced to Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, who live at Longbourn, the family estate in rural England. An ambitious mama, Mrs. Bennet is determined to find her daughters suitable marriages, and is pleased when Mr. Bingley, a wealthy bachelor with a £5,000-a-year fortune, arrives in town.
Charles Bingley is introduced to society at a local ball, at an assembly hall packed with men and women of marriageable age. A grand entrance awaits Mr. Bingley, his sister Caroline and the greatest literary hero of all time, Mr. Darcy (the handsome, blue-eyed Matthew Macfadyen), as they appear at the doors of the hall. Suddenly, the music is replaced by pin-drop silence, the dancing comes to a pause and all eyes are on the three of them. The Bennet sisters pay attention. Jane immediately falls in love with Mr. Bingley, and Elizabeth’s eyes are unknowingly drawn to Mr. Darcy. She judges far too quickly, questions his quizzical brow, and labels him as the owner of the ‘miserable’ half of Derbyshire. His £10,000-a-year fortune does little to impress her. Elizabeth and Darcy do however, exchange glances, and Jane dances with Bingley for most of the night. Later, Elizabeth is successful at ridiculing Mr. Darcy, after she overhears him expressing to a friend that she wasn’t “handsome enough” to tempt him.
They meet once again, when Elizabeth travels to Netherfield to see Jane, after her sister falls ill on her visit to Caroline Bingley. She arrives after hours of walking, her dress six inches deep in mud, looking positively medieval. Her verbal sparring with Mr. Darcy set the tone for their relationship, Elizabeth’s indifference and disdain for him only ever increasing. Although that does change a little bit towards the end of the scene. The Bennets thank Mr. Bingley for his hospitality and are seated in the carriage, but when Elizabeth says her goodbyes, the greatest scene of the film transpires.
The thing is, Pride & Prejudice is entirely built on subtleties. The first time Elizabeth and Darcy feel a sense of attraction towards each other is when their bare hands touch. He offers her his hand as she steps into her family carriage. You see Elizabeth’s surprise at him and Darcy’s at himself, and he turns away before she can comprehend the gesture. Also known as the “hand flex” scene, the next moment sees Darcy flex his fingers as if in agony. It’s incredible, emotionally cinematic, and one of the most romantic scenes I have ever seen.
It would be remiss of me not to credit Mr Excellent Boiled Potatoes, the dreaded cousin Mr Collins, for bringing some humour to the film. But there’s so much that happens before the happy ending begins. Elizabeth is informed about Darcy’s deep prejudice by a dashing officer, and Darcy and Elizabeth dance at a ball where everyone vanishes, abandoning them with the only company they’re allowed to enjoy: their feelings. Bingley leaves town, Elizabeth refuses a proposal from Mr. Collins, and discovers Darcy is responsible for leading Bingley away from town, in a bid to keep him away from Jane.
In a later scene, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the pouring rain, at a picturesque mausoleum. He reveals that he loves her most ardently, despite her inferior rank. They have a heated argument which clears much of their misunderstanding and soon after, real feelings begin to take shape. Here are some things I loved: Elizabeth and Darcy’s meeting at Rosings, his admiration for her as she played the piano, his easy smile when welcoming Elizabeth’s uncle and aunt, and his honest endeavour to change. I also admired Elizabeth’s kinder eyes, her harmless teasing, and acceptance of her true feelings. The second time Darcy proposes, it’s incomparable to the first. It’s after he has done right by Elizabeth and Jane, redeeming himself entirely in the dreamy morning mist at the end of the film. Of course she says yes. Here’s what I didn’t like though: Elizabeth’s dreary response (“Your hands are cold” – come on, seriously?) to Darcy’s achingly romantic proposal.
Joe Wright’s version of the story of my two favourite, fiercely intelligent, utterly mismatched individuals, who are stubborn in their idealism and isolated by their beliefs, is far superior to any other Pride & Prejudice adaptation I have seen. It is because Wright’s venture is an original exploration of two fictional characters who are treated as if they truly existed in this world. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen breathe life into an old story about star-crossed lovers, and I’ll never get over it. Come what may, Austen’s labour of love will continue to live on through this film, and it’ll always have an audience.
Whether you’re looking for a film to watch on Valentine’s Day with someone special or your best friends, Pride & Prejudice is streaming on Netflix – but only until March 3. My suggestion is to make the most of it; I know I will. You won’t find a more touching tale of misread signals anywhere else.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.