Mr. Darcy’s Proposal

Feb 29, 2016 | Opinions


As you may all know, I am somewhat obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. It is my favorite book. Okay, that’s not really true. It’s more… this is the book by which I measure my own work. It has so much wit, and character! It has nuance and layers, and it’s timelessly fun. So light and easy to read, even two hundred years after it was first written. Jane Austen was one of the greatest novelists to ever contribute to English literature.

Anyway! Today I want to talk about something that I’ve been waffling on about lately. See, Pride and Prejudice has had plenty of adaptations to film and TV, and I’m fascinated by the differences in each. So… let’s talk about the infamous Proposal.

For those of you who are in need of education – Pride and Prejudice is the somewhat convoluted love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. They are the ur-example of the trope where two people start off hating each other, and then their relationship turns to attraction and eventually romance. Halfway through the book (spoilers!), Mr. Darcy approaches Elizabeth, and basically says that he’s in love with her despite his best efforts to ignore it, and asks for her hand in marriage. After he insults the hell out of her family in the process, she throws it back into his face in a Crowning Moment of Awesome, and tells him to GTFO until he can behave like a gentleman.

The Proposal has so much going on in it. SO MUCH. Darcy’s feelings are finally revealed to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth finally calls him out on his bullshit. Everyone has been so polite to his face up to this point because he is a rich, privileged man, but she – just a woman, and very much powerless in comparison to him at that point in time – she turns into goddamn steel and hands him the verbal ass-whupping he so richly deserves. Not for nothing does he spend the rest of the book sucking up to her and trying to be a better person, because he learns, in that moment, that nothing less will make him deserving of her. What he says later in the book really resonates as a result:

You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.

So, needless to say, getting this one scene right in an adaptation is really, really important. And difficult. In fact, I’d rate only one adaptation as the one that works, and that is the BBC 1995 miniseries, with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

See, it’s so potent because this one scene isn’t about love – or at least, it isn’t about an anguished declaration of love. It’s about Darcy’s desperation, that he has been brought this low by his feelings – and not once did he ever consider HER feelings, or the thought that she’d say no. It’s about Elizabeth’s iron-clad integrity; her loyalty to her sister, and being true to herself, means she’d never, ever say yes, no matter how rich and powerful Darcy is. Everyone else can be polite and pander to his ego, but she is having none of that shit right here, where it counts the most. And in an instant, she has all the power, and he has none.

I don’t know if there will ever be an Elizabeth and Darcy as good at this pair, honestly. They do it so well. But let’s move on – let’s look at a few other versions of this scene.

Okay, this is the 2005 movie, which has Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. And this… what can I say? Macfayden is a fine actor, but he’s no Darcy. He’s too wishy-washy in this scene. There’s no sign of barely contained anger – at himself, not Elizabeth – and no sign of his rationality battling his love for her. Keira Knightley, too, is far too uncontrolled. At the point where they start shouting at each other, much of the power and the tension is lost.

Pride and Prejudice has always been about manners, and the maintenance of respectability and propriety. It’s about how two people navigate their relationship behind a mask of public image. Colin Firth performed Darcy so well because he was able to smolder his way across a room; the mask was always in place, but you could see the feelings bubbling underneath it. Jennifer Ehle was nothing but demure and controlled, but she delivered Elizabeth’s dialogue with enough bite to chop down a whole forest. Matthew Macfayden and Keira Knightley say their lines with plenty of feeling, but they just can’t sell the characters.

Here’s the other BBC miniseries, from 1980, with David Rintoul as Darcy and Elizabeth Garvie as, heh, Elizabeth.

I actually like this series overall, but it’s just lacking the emotion of the 1995 miniseries. It’s a period drama – very much a period drama, and it was filmed like a period drama. It’s mostly about the costumes and the setting. It goes too much in the other direction, being too controlled and too… flat, for want of a better word. It’s still a good adaptation.

Alright, up to today, I didn’t know this film from 1940 existed. And now, I’ve watched it almost all the way through. My friends, you’ll know from my previous post that I think the 2005 movie is a pretty bad adaptation because they had to compress one of the greatest works of English literature into a 90 minute film, and I am not afraid to say that just watching it made me want to toss my computer monitor out a window. This movie, however…

I can’t even be mad. This is the weirdest mashup of old Hollywood and English period drama I’ve ever seen. It’s so carefully crafted for an American audience that it confuses the hell out of me, like I’m seeing someone I know walking down the street in a chicken costume. Let’s not observe too closely, though – whoever did the costumes decided that a wardrobe left over from the Civil War would do just fine (hint: it doesn’t) and that everyone should act, and talk, like Americans attempting to be English. And the Proposal is reduced to this… whatever it is.

I had to stop the movie as soon as Darcy started talking here, solely because I was expecting the legendary lines:

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

And they CHANGED it. They made it sound so horribly fake. Fair dues to Lawrence Olivier, because I think he at least looks the part, but there the illusion ends. He delivers Darcy’s iconic moment as if he’s giving a sermon on the evils of alcohol, which then turns into some horribly schlocky silver screen romantic nonsense. Greer Garson doesn’t have enough strength behind her lines. Like the 1980 miniseries, it comes off too flat.

I suppose it’s still an okay movie, if you like that sort of thing, but it’s not Pride and Prejudice.

So there you have it. One of the best scenes from one of the greatest novels ever written, as rendered on a screen, several different ways. Which one is your favorite?