2020 has been an extremely long and incredibly weird year, one defined by absence: of precedence, of bureaucratic competence, of any semblance of sanity or normalcy. It has also been—mind-numbingly, infuriatingly—a year defined by excess: of death, of time, of news, and, most notably, of distance. Quarantine, social distancing, masks, lockdowns—the language of separation and obstruction has invaded our daily lexicon in ways none of us were prepared for, with effects that are more than rhetorical. Suddenly, the spaces between us have taken on a weighty, burdensome significance, and for the first time in decades—for many of us, the first time at all—they aren’t easily overcome by a strong internet connection and a camera-equipped device; instead, they have transformed into a societal imperative, a medical necessity. The one thing that has stayed the same in this tumultuous time is the constancy of our connections, but as the pandemic goes on, they, too, have begun to feel the weight of distance: our friends and family are still nothing more than a text, a tap, a video-call away, but in the face of all this, they’ve never felt further.
This is the world in which Pride & Prejudice (2005), Joe Wright’s sunny adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic 1813 novel, celebrates its fifteenth anniversary. It seems like a different, unfamiliar world, and yet, as the film opens on Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) walking through an empty field, immersed in pastoral English life, we realize: maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s the constant, instant proximity that’s new and strange; maybe, just maybe, the distance doesn’t have to be so painful.
Austen’s six novels were published during the early nineteenth century, at a time when it was improper for her to address a man outside her social circle, let alone openly acknowledge a sexual attraction to him. But in spite of the gendered etiquette of her day—and because of it—there is no denying the illicit thrill of attraction that hums beneath the surface of her work. Eroticism, for her—and for Wright in turn—is not expressed in overt sexuality, but in acts of tenderness, of service. Kindness, capability, attentiveness, moral goodness, reliability—in the absence of physical closeness, these traits take on an electrifying sensuality. Distance, then, is not a hindrance, but a versatile medium through which lovers communicate their affections. It’s a medium that Wright, with his tableau-like frames and lingering glimpses of clenched hands and yearning faces, uses much to his advantage.
When Elizabeth Bennet first meets the surly Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), it’s at a distance. The pair lock eyes as he strolls across a crowded ballroom, and, as the room pauses at his arrival, it’s clear that what comes between them is not only physical. Darcy is a gentleman, part of an old aristocracy that provides him with a significant annual income and places him in the upper echelons of society. He is well-educated and well-respected, and he holds himself with the confidence of someone who knows his place in the world.
Elizabeth, likewise, is a lady in society, but, not unlike Austen herself, she is at its lower fringes; the Bennets are landed gentry, but they have no real claim to their property, nor any significant wealth. It also appears that Elizabeth—outspoken but even-keeled—is a victim of her family’s unconventionality; they tend to strike one more as a gaggle than as a group. Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach chose to play up the Bennets’ ridiculousness, and Brenda Blethyn, as Mrs. Bennet, took her cues to heart. Elizabeth’s mother hustles around the crowded ballroom, speaking to anyone who will listen about the beauty of her beloved daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike), namely to the newly- arrived—and very wealthy—Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods). Clearly, it’s a gauche habit; as she watches the Bennets and their neighbors, his sister, Caroline Bingley (Kelly Reilly), comments snidely: “We are a long way from Grosvenor Square, are we not, Mr. Darcy?”
Elizabeth and Darcy are worlds apart, in every sense. But then their eyes meet, and suddenly, that distance is no longer a reason to stay apart, but one to come together. In the literal and rhetorical gaps between Elizabeth and her unwilling-acquaintance-turned-ardent-lover, a palpable tension is allowed to bloom, a sort of bridge that brings each closer to understanding the other, even at their most distant moments. Macfadyen, especially, plays with the trials of distance brilliantly; Darcy’s longing is written so plainly, so vividly on his face that it almost seems to entangle itself with his very physical being. “You have bewitched me, body and soul,” he tells Elizabeth in his final confession of love, and it’s true. He cannot tear his eyes from her, nor can he stop himself from drawing closer.
This magnetic attraction between Darcy and Elizabeth grows quickly, made all the more obvious by Elizabeth’s subdued interactions with her other would-be suitors, her cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) and the scheming Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend). Darcy is the only man who rushes to stand when Elizabeth enters a room—out of decorum of course, but the action feels devotional; you have the sense of an invisible rope pulling him up, leading right back to Elizabeth. At the Netherfield ball he lingers in the background, watching her intently, clearly working up the nerve to ask her to dance, so that he may encourage her affections. When Elizabeth soundly rejects his ill-conceived first proposal, Darcy still cannot seem to help but close the space between himself and the object of his affections; his eyes fall hopefully and hopelessly to her lips, even as he insults her family’s “lack of propriety”, even as she tells him that he is “the last man in the world [she] could ever be prevailed upon to marry.” But it’s not just Darcy being drawn in; after his botched proposal, Elizabeth gazes into a mirror at Rosings, perhaps wondering how things with Darcy reached that wretched point, when suddenly he appears behind her, almost as if she conjured him by sheer will.
In all of these moments, the distances between Darcy and Elizabeth serve to clarify and deepen their mutual regard, for only at a distance can you be drawn in. What Wright’s Pride & Prejudice understands is precisely what Austen’s original demonstrates: that distance is hard and frustrating, but it’s not insurmountable, nor inherently unpleasant. He uses space and separation not only as an obstacle, but also as an intensifier. Their eyes meet and their voices fail them, but still, everything between them is crystal clear. “I do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have not met before,” Darcy explains to Elizabeth, but to Wright, the talent is not necessary. Everything that could be communicated with a simple touch or word is communicated, but the learning is all the sweeter, for a touch and even a word can be misconstrued, but a look—especially one so openly vulnerable as Darcy’s, so shyly thrilled as Elizabeth’s—leaves no room for interpretation. Wright creates sumptuous, luxurious frames, full, not only with finery or nature or humanity, but also with emotion. Even in scenes where only one of them is present, Darcy and Elizabeth—along with their mutual affection, respect, adoration for one another—fill the screen. Everything between them lingers, made only more profound in the open spaces of propriety. Within weeks of meeting each other, the tension between Darcy and Elizabeth brings them as close as they could possibly be without actual physical proximity. And then, of course, comes the Hand Flex.
You might be shocked to know that the Hand Flex, subject of many a meme and even a small manifesto, occurs only twenty-five minutes into Pride & Prejudice’s two-hour run-time. It’s such an exhilarating moment, and it seems strange that it should come so early. But that’s the thing about space: it’s ephemeral, easily displaced, and in spite of new imperatives and old norms, it’s meant to be crossed.
It should be nothing more than a simple, polite gesture when Darcy offers Elizabeth his hand. It’s not impulsive or unexpected. But when their joined hands drift into the frame, Elizabeth looks down in shock. It’s as if this is the first time she’s ever been touched, like she’s never felt anything at all until this very moment. She looks at Darcy, a long-suppressed heat plain on her face, a bald depth of emotion that finally matches his own. He looks back at her only briefly, his own face twisted in pain and elation, in longing and satisfaction. And then the moment is over. The space rushes back in. But Darcy, body bewitched, struggles to acclimate to this new reality. His hand, burning with the sublime peak of anticipated closeness and the excruciating moment of letting go, flexes, as if he is coming back into his body. His long fingers tremble; there is no going back.
We fixate on this moment because, in the face of strict Regency-era etiquette, it feels remarkably like consummation. There’s something sensual about it, though it’s nothing more than one hand in another. But this, Wright demonstrates, is what space and distance do: they keep us painfully apart, and, in doing so, make the moment of encounter all the more wonderfully devastating. More so than that, it’s a moment that highlights the preciousness of something that, until this year, we’d all taken for granted: closeness. To be near is one thing, but to be truly close, to feel the force of what blossoms in the daunting spaces of separation, is a privilege, a miracle, really. There is so much in the world to keep them apart: his “better judgement, [his] family’s expectations, the inferiority of [Elizabeth’s] birth by rank and circumstance,” but, against all odds, they don’t. They can’t. Darcy shakes as he releases Elizabeth’s hand, not only for the thrill of physical touch, but also for the rapturous impossibility of it; he pours every ounce of his reverence and admiration for Elizabeth into this single, rare moment, and somehow, she knows.
So Darcy and Elizabeth act as a kind of two-body gravitational force, each pulling the other ever-closer. Even when it seems to fail, when the distance between them seems to become hopelessly cavernous, that force still succeeds in moving them. Darcy walks away from his proposal, rejected, hurt, and entirely out of favor with the woman he loves, but still, he cannot wrench himself from her. Elizabeth, now fully aware of the meaning behind Darcy’s actions, mourns what never was. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say; the renewed distance, though painful, makes them more patient, more appreciative. It creates an even deeper devotion, a novel willingness to accept each other’s titular flaws, and ironically, it brings them closer, in knowledge and understanding, if not in proximity. In the wake of the proposal-turned-shouting-match, Elizabeth and Darcy finally see each other clearly: she recognizes his reserved manner as one borne out a protective instinct and profound loyalty, and he realizes that her family’s happiness is synonymous with her own, regardless of their frequent lack of decorum. At the mercies of distance, they learn about each other, and when they are finally reunited at Pemberley, Darcy’s estate, it shows in their manner. It’s still awkward between them, and rightfully so, but it is also softer somehow, like the intensity that once pulled them together has transformed into true intimacy; still intimidating, but warmer, more tranquil. “Yes! Yes, I know,” Darcy says when Elizabeth, embarrassed to have been discovered visiting Pemberley, cites her fondness for walking as an excuse to leave. “I know you now,” he seems to tell her. Their separation colors the line with sadness, but it is also the only thing that makes it possible.
Austen’s original love story has always been and will always be a timeless one, but it is Wright’s take on Darcy, Elizabeth, and the space between them that reminds us why it is now a relevant one. Without meaning to be, fifteen years after its premiere, Pride & Prejudice is a blueprint for the new era. It shows us that closeness does not necessitate proximity, that space and distance are not inherently empty, and that nearness should be experienced as a singular pleasure, rather than a given. It urges us to see that, in this age of social distancing, we must find our happiness not in the instant gratification of good looks or the material convenience of status and station, but in the earthen stability of constancy and loyalty. It advocates for the kind of love that allows Darcy to say, “You must know, surely you must know. It was all for you.” the kind of love that will shock us to life if (and when) the distance dissipates. Pride & Prejudice will endure, should endure because Wright brought to life what Austen and her contemporaries had no trouble understanding, and what we, in this strange, strange year, are just getting around to remembering: that love is expressed not in the touching hands, but in the hand yearning to touch again.