Greatish Performances #44

gp macfayden

#44 — Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)

Years after giving the performance, Matthew Macfadyen expressed some regret over his experience playing the character fully named as Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s nineteenth century novel Pride and Prejudice. This wasn’t the usual actor’s lament about bygone choices they’d make differently given the added wisdom accumulated with a few more years of plying their craft. Macfadyen reflected on the feelings associated with doing the job.

“I wish I’d enjoyed it more,” Macfadyen said. “I was uncomfortable doing it. I think I felt the pressure about it.”

In playing Mr. Darcy, Macfadyen wasn’t simply taking on the daunting task of playing a famed figure from English literature. He was settling into a character that had of late taken on a near-mythic dreamboat status for the erudite and refined. Thanks largely to a famed turn by Colin Firth in a 1995 television miniseries, loosely reprised a few years later in comic fashion, expectations around a Mr. Darcy performance were laden with extra weight, a preemptive certainty that measuring up to the ideal verged on the inconceivable. And Macfadyen, still somewhat early in his film career, was trusted with a critical role in his first major production. Feeling the pressure was a proper response.

I don’t know if Macfadyen’s internal fretting seeped into the performance, but it at least mirrors the characterization of Mr. Darcy in the 2005 film Pride & Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright. Often portrayed as a crank whose heart is eventually melted by the sharp-witted, headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (played, in this instance, by Keira Knightley), Macfadyen’s Darcy is instead stiffened by social uncertainty into a withdrawn state that resembles misanthropy. He is not contentious due to a combative or ill-mannered soul. In Macfadyen’s delicate, subtly detailed performance, Darcy surveys a bustling culture beholden to arcane, unspoken rules and can’t quite suss out his place within it.

A characterization marked more by hesitancy than cantankerousness lends greater plausibility to the central romance. Darcy is not worn down by Elizabeth so much as intrigued from the jump without the means to express his growing ardor. And Elizabeth doesn’t acquiesce to the overtures of a man who’s undergone a change of heart. She finds the appeal of his inner being gradually, small intriguing signs of guarded sensitivity offering a compelling reason for her to continue studying this person shifting tensely on the edge of her peripheral vision. When the moment for a grand gesture arrives, Wright stages it visually and structurally with the expected swelling import, but Macfadyen keeps the emotions contained, presenting them to Elizabeth with a level of care that suggests less a breakthrough than a momentary gathering of precarious bravery. Darcy’s declaration of his love is veined by worry, as if a part of himself is readying for disappointment and a retreat to the solitude of his discomfort.

The classic works of Austen and her rough contemporaries are routinely cycled back to for British productions, and the predominance of those period dramas has resulted in a certain mode of acting. It can seem as though roles are informed by preceding renderings of the material rather than a concerted plumbing of the motivations and emotions running through the story. The notes have been played so many times that repeating the familiar tune becomes the prudent course. Macfadyen’s performance in Pride & Prejudice is distinctly accomplished in large part because of the way he elides this common problem. When Macfadyen met Darcy, the character was intimidatingly venerable, laminated into a singular interpretation. To his great credit, Macfadyen finds his way past the vault walls of canonical protection to play Darcy as a simply a person, recognizable in his faults and his possibilities.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings

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