PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.2 (Summer 2007)
Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice: From Classicism to Romanticism



Dr. Lydia Martin (email: teaches at the University of Provence, France.  Her area of research is eighteenth-century British literature and the cinematic adaptations of novels.  Her Ph.D. thesis was entitled “Jane Austen’s Novels on Screen: Aesthetics and Ideology.”  She wrote a monograph on Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (CEFAL, Belgium).


            The eighteenth century is often presented as a time characterized by a leaning towards reasonable behavior.  Reason governed emotions, which were criticized when escaping its control.  Eighteenth-century classicism established order, decorum and respect of traditions as qualities to be cultivated in life as in literature.  But at the end of the century, as Jane Austen began writing “First Impressions,” other tendencies emerged and changed the vision of things.  The Romantic movement in literature and the visual arts privileged feelings and instinctive responses to events.  At a time when literature was torn—according to a simplified view—between eighteenth-century values and techniques and the new “Romantic” ideology, Jane Austen could not have found more culturally connoted terms than “Sense” and “Sensibility” for the title of her first published novel.  Although it is difficult to link her works to any particular mode of vision, two centuries later Deborah Moggach and Joe Wright seem by the end of their film to have resolved the ambiguities of her texts:  they use the traditional opposition between Classicism and Romanticism not merely to reflect a literary and artistic tension of the time but symbolically to suggest the evolution in the characters’ relationships.


            The promotion of Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice set the tone:  the choice of a poster bearing a tag line surprising to a Jane Austen reader announces the parti pris of the film makers:  “Sometimes the last person on earth you want to be with is the one you can’t be without.”  Before the release of the film, two websites1 offered pictures and screensavers contrasting with the previous versions of Pride and Prejudice:  while the video cases and posters of earlier adaptations suggested antagonism between the heroes, those chosen to represent the new production emphasized a romantic relationship.  All the ingredients of a love story are present.  The two protagonists are united in a setting and an atmosphere suffused with Romanticism:  at the top of the poster, the heroine, in close up, is decentered to the right and gazes into the distance; on the left side of the frame Darcy appears in the background, walking in the fog, exactly as one would imagine Heathcliff in an adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1847).  The focus is on Elizabeth, who becomes the center of interest, while Darcy is lost in an artistic blur.  The picture at the bottom of the poster—Elizabeth walking in the open countryside—seems to be taken from the adaptation, although it presents a sunny sky whereas in the film the weather is ominous.  The shot is divided in two horizontally.  Such a choice isolates the main character who seems lost, deep in the country, an image which constitutes a Romantic topos.  The sun shining above the trees is a reminder of the first and the last scenes of the film.


            However Romantic this poster might be, the film creates tension by refusing to abandon totally and immediately Classicism for Romanticism.  Such hesitation is to be found first in the music.  The soundtrack is characterized by Classical echoes and suggestive titles such as “A Postcard to Henry Purcell,” a piece composed of variations in arpeggios typical of the beginning of Classicism.  The melody “Arrival at Netherfield” is reminiscent of Mozart’s style, and “Another Dance” is evocative of Lully.  Classicism, however, coexists with Romanticism, as in “Credits,” in which the expressive melody performed on a clarinet and strings, with a slow rhythm and chords played in arpeggios, illustrates a transition between the two schools, in the style of Beethoven.  This piece is an appropriate choice for an opening as it does not betray the Romantic bias of the production.  As the story progresses, Romanticism seems to win the battle through a move towards an atmospheric and emotive music reminiscent of Schumann and Brahms.  The melodic themes are very expressive, and the addition of a cello in “Darcy’s Letter” accentuates the pathos.


While the musical accompaniment wavers between two styles before opting for one, the treatment of settings shows the same type of uncertainty.  Indoor takes and location shots indicate an evolution from Classicism to Romanticism.  The film’s opening with overlapping birdsong, heard even before the first image appears on screen, suggests the awakening of nature.  The film title appears on a pastoral picture of British countryside, at dawn.  The cinematographer films Elizabeth in a slightly low-angle shot to present her harmonious relationship with nature:  a high-angle shot would have crushed and isolated her.  The countryside is generally filmed in aesthetic extreme long shots, as when Elizabeth walks to Netherfield:  the shot composition seems to protect the character, who becomes part of nature, an effect which corresponds to a Romantic representation of the relationship between nature and man.


            The composition of indoor takes differs from location shots, emphasizing the Classical architecture of houses whose inhabitants are characterized by their lack of emotions or feelings, or their difficulty in expressing them.  Longbourn is initially presented in a long sequence shot including fluid panning and tracking shots.  Netherfield is introduced in a different way:  the establishing shot enhances the coldness of the setting.  The stiffness of the characters contrasts with Elizabeth’s appearance when she enters the drawing-room:  Caroline Bingley, Darcy, and two servants are filmed in a long shot, whereas the medium close-up on Elizabeth introduces a proximity between her and the viewers.  Through the use of scale and distance, the camera indicates how the lack of naturalness in the Netherfield characters comes up against Elizabeth’s spontaneity.  The architecture of the room is obviously Neoclassical and suggests a narrowing of the frame, which is enhanced by the vertical lines structuring the shot; the columns metaphorically symbolize the characters’ imprisonment, whereas Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield in the open air takes place in a setting devoid of vertical lines.  In such a Classical setting, the images play on the depth of field to introduce a Romantic element:  the windows offer an escape and allow the characters to glimpse the countryside.


The film often shows the characters looking outdoors through the frame of a window.  Their gazes and the repeated tracking shots of the camera towards a window convey a desire to escape enclosed spaces.  These gazes recall that of the “picturesque” viewer (in the eighteenth-century meaning of the term), eager for beautiful landscapes, who sometimes appears in the artist’s painting, as in Francis Cotes’s Paul Sandby (1761), where Sandby is represented sitting at his window and drawing the view.  Such shots seem to imprison some characters and symbolize their incompleteness:  Darcy is often caught in doorways, a pattern which points to his difficulty in escaping from the hierarchical social structure in which he has been brought up; so is Mr. Collins, the frustrated clergyman.  His stiffness when he proposes to Elizabeth illustrates his lack of Romanticism and absence of real feelings towards the young woman.  His head remains out of the frame, which draws the viewer’s attention to his gesture as Mr. Collins behaves in accordance with sentimental clichés:  he gives a flower to Elizabeth.  His formality is in keeping with the Neoclassical restraint of emotions via order and decorum, and his aping of Romantic attitudes makes him an object of ridicule.  The camera remains at a distance, and the long shot includes a large piece of ham in the foreground.  Such a composition establishes a distance between the characters on screen and the viewers, and contrasts with Darcy’s first proposal in which the use of shot/reverse shot and close-ups sets up a game of seduction.  When Elizabeth runs away from Mr. Collins, she takes refuge near the river, in a typically Romantic place where the water reflects light onto her face.


            If the lighting in Pride & Prejudice creates Romantic effects, it nevertheless corresponds to classical Hollywood lighting, deprived of realism, which shows the actors in their best guise.  Lighting techniques in the scene in which Elizabeth plays the piano at Lady Catherine’s request while Darcy, feeling drawn to her, joins her, enhance the two actors’ beauty.  Their faces are divided between shadow and light, a metaphorical suggestion that their feelings are mixed.  The first proposal scene underlines the distance they will have to cover in order to discover their true personalities.  In that particular scene, Romanticism coexists with Classicism, which explains why Darcy will fail in his attempt.  The message is clear:  Darcy must become thoroughly Romantic in order to win Elizabeth.  The picturesque, dark green landscape contrasts with the whitish Neoclassical architecture of the Temple of Apollo and the Palladian bridge that Elizabeth has just run across.  Darcy’s external appearance transforms him into a Romantic hero, with his wet hair and sad looks, but the Classical nature of the place announces that he has not yet escaped his hierarchical conception of society.  His proposal is just a formality, hence his surprise when she refuses.  Twice he bends as if to kiss her, but he pulls himself together when she raises her head towards him as if to encourage his kiss.  The conflicting elements of lighting, setting and movement suggest their conflicting feelings.


            Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley is characterized by a Romantic shift illustrating how Classicism becomes the means to achieve Romanticism.  The scene in the Sculpture Gallery bears an intertextual relation with Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954), in which Catherine (Ingrid Bergman) visits the archaeological museum in Naples.  The director uses the same type of shot/reverse shot between the protagonist and the statues around which the camera turns, thus translating the development of her thoughts.  Surprisingly, Canova’s Neoclassical marble statues introduce an underlying eroticism and allow Elizabeth to express her sensuality in the way she gazes at the male nudes.  Her gazes are reproduced in the fluid camera movements, which follow her access to sensual knowledge, until she reaches Darcy’s marble bust.  She then approaches a hidden side to the young man, whom she glimpses later on as he spontaneously takes his sister in his arms. 


By replacing Darcy’s portrait with his marble bust, the film insists on the corporal dimension already mentioned through the few physical contacts between Darcy and Elizabeth.  His hand constitutes a recurring metonymy throughout the production:  Elizabeth’s agitation is obvious as he helps her into the carriage when she leaves Netherfield; he walks away and his tension becomes visible when he stretches out his hand, a symbol of his imprisonment; when they meet again at Pemberley, they engage in small talk, but as she walks away, the camera stops on a shot in which Darcy’s hand appears in close-up; finally, Elizabeth kisses his hand at the end of the film.  Body language becomes a substitute for a language that seems inappropriate to the characters unable to verbally express their strong feelings.  At several points, Elizabeth tries to express what she feels, mostly to her sister Jane, but events prevent her from doing so:  when she runs into the house after her father backs her in her refusal to marry Mr. Collins, she is about to tell the whole story to Jane, but the insert shot on Caroline’s letter interrupts her.  Later on she tries to explain to Jane how blind she has been, but Bingley’s return prevents her from going on, and she sits sadly on her own beneath a tree.


            The Romantic bias of the film is shown through the shifts in the characters’ relationships, the soundtrack and the treatment of landscape.  The revelation of Lydia’s elopement is followed by a quick return to Longbourn by night.  The carriage crosses desolate lands whose bluish tints are reminiscent of Romantic paintings, such as those by John Robert Cozens, famous for his lyricism and twilight landscapes that, rather than reproducing reality accurately, instead express the painter’s feelings.  In this sequence, the atmosphere becomes threatening, and the surroundings are blurred.  The same blue tones are used for the second proposal scene, but the ray of sunshine which pierces the fog brings to mind J. M. W. Turner’s aesthetics (Norham Castle, Sunrise, c. 1844; S. Giorgio Maggiore: Early Morning, 1819; The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838).  This reference to the archetypal Romantic painter is in keeping with the characters’ ultimate success, in a landscape totally devoid of Classical innuendo, in expressing their emotions.


The most recent Austen film is suffused with Romantic topoi, a choice which becomes obvious when focusing on the treatment of the protagonists’ relationships, the soundtrack and the pictorial influences.  The DVD available in Europe offers an alternate U. S. ending in which Darcy and Elizabeth flirt on a terrace at Pemberley, by night.  The terrace with its Classical architecture overhangs the lake on which swans are gliding.  Despite the ridiculous connotations of its over-romanticism, this sequence introduces a new ideology.  By ending the film on Mr. Bennet, Joe Wright focused on family and patriarchal society.  The alternate ending of Pride & Prejudice, however, exhibits an ideology based on individualism:  the couple is established as the nucleus of a new world with fluctuating identities; Elizabeth becomes the wife of a rich landlord and, as such, attains more power than she ever had when she was in Longbourn.  This Romantic twist with which the U. S. film ends announces a new national structure, one that takes into account individuals’ merits rather than births.





1.  The official website is; the film’s site for Working Title is




Pride & Prejudice.  Dir. Joe Wright.  Perf. Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.  DVD.  Working Title, 2005.

Pride & Prejudice: Music from the Motion Picture.  By Dario Marianelli.  Perf. Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  CD.  UCJ, 2005.

Viaggio in Italia.  Dir. Roberto Rossellini.  Perf. Ingrid Bergman.  Sveva Film, 1954. 

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