Since there’s been a recent assortment of films and TV shows that adapt Jane Austen’s novels, it’s given us the perfect excuse to write about the actors who have captured some of Austen’s most renowned characters the best.
I enlisted the help of Ask Media Group’s Managing Editor Hannah Riley and Editor Kate Bove — who both boast plenty of Austenite credentials — to help me with this by-no-means scientific ranking of some of our favorite Austen characters on the screen. Here’s what we came up with.
Most Taciturn Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice)
Let it be a tie here between Colin Firth, pop culture’s most revered onscreen Mr. Darcy for the last more than 25 years thanks to the 1995 BBC miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and Conrad Ricamora as Will, the Darcy from one of the latest incarnations of the role in the modern-day adaptation Fire Island (2022).
We don’t feel there’ll be much of a question or controversy about why we decided to include Firth here. And if you are wondering about the reason, I can only tell you this: go watch the six-episode miniseries adaptation — it’s available on BritBox and video on demand — and gush with us afterward. Although I’ll understand it if younger audiences are more taken by Bridgerton’s season two version of the dip-in-the-lake scene with Jonathan Bailey.
As for Hulu’s Fire Island, Ricamora (How to Get Away With Murder) plays Will, a circumspect Los Angeles lawyer who’s reluctantly vacationing at New York’s famed gay destination. He’s not exactly the party type. He’ll meet Noah (Joel Kim Booster), the Lizzie Bennet of this story, and it won’t be love at first sight. But Ricamora still manages to reluctantly attract Noah — and the viewer — in all his you-won’t-catch-me-eating-ice-cream-on-a-cone snobbishness.
And I’ve already talked about Matthew Macfadyen being certainly laconic but not exactly Mr. Darcy material in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005). As senior culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald put it in a recent article for Andscape: “He was perfectly cast as Tom Wambsgans in Succession but his limp, damp turn as Darcy in the 2005 feature adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was disappointing.” I couldn’t agree more.
Most Credibly Seductive Mr. Wickham (Pride & Prejudice)
Austen describes this deceitful character as “of most gentlemanlike appearance” and capable not only of catching everyone’s attention at first sight but also of striking them with his “air.” To play a Wickham comme il faut, you need to cast someone who doesn’t become more appealing as the story progresses, but who catches the viewer’s eye from the very first second they appear on the screen.
Casting Wickham has proven challenging at times. But a few adaptations have gotten it right. Zane Phillips in Fire Island definitely has that “Who’s this very sexy stranger?” thing to him. As did Matthew Goode in the three-episode adaptation of P.D. James’ mystery novel Death Comes to Pemberley. This 2013 miniseries, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys, explores the lives of Lizzie and Darcy after years of living together at Pemberley. When death strikes and a corpse turns up at Pemberley all suspicions of foul-play point to — who else — Wickham.
And because Pride & Prejudice’s (2005) cast was quite solid for the most part — except for Darcy — let’s add a mention of Rupert Friend’s turn as the handsome red-coat wearer here as well.
Most Clueless Emma Woodhouse (Emma)
When it comes to posh, snobbish and detached heiresses with a penchant for playing matchmaker, despite being utterly unaware of their own limitations, it’s a toss-up between Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in 1995’s Clueless and Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma in Emma. (2020).
They even share the need for assistance when getting dressed in the morning. In the case of Taylor-Joy, it’s the inestimable help of a lady’s maid, while Silverstone employs a sophisticated — for the 1990s at least — software that advises her on mismatches. If only they remembered not to be so judgemental of others’ less advantageous stations.
Most Sensible Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility)
If we talk about the most judicious and commonsensical of the Dashwood sisters, there’s no competition or room for discussion: it has to be Emma Thompson in Ang Lee’s 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility.
Not only was the role totally befitting of her talents as a performer, but she was also the one who adapted Austen’s novel into a screenplay here — and won an Oscar for it.
The actress and writer has talked about her work in this screenplay and movie — where she met her husband, the actor Greg Wise — as the thing that kept her sane after her divorce from filmmaker Kenneth Branagh.
Incidentally, Thompson is not the only performer perfectly cast for their role in this movie. Wise plays the most archetypal of Willoughbys here. In the film’s making-of documentary, producer Lindsay Doran talks about how Wise charmed all the team from day one as Willoughby. Lee refers to the character as a “dream.” And Thompson describes him as someone deeply recognizable. “He’s the guy who broke your heart when you were 15, 16, 17, 18… doesn’t matter when. He’s the guy who broke your heart.” We’re glad he didn’t break her heart though.
Most Duplicitously Dashing Mr. Elliot (Persuasion)
Forgive my pretext to broach — yet again — the subject of the somewhat-disputed recent adaptation of Persuasion. Even if most critics seemed to detest it, I liked this movie, which stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot, a lot.
So let me mention Henry Golding, who’s the perfectly cast Mr. Elliot — the wealthy widower who also happens to be our protagonist’s (Johnson) cousin and the heir to her family’s home and fortune. He’ll do anything to make sure he inherits Kellynch Hall. Even if that means courting Anne — he does feel an attachment to her — all while still seducing another woman who could pose a risk to his future patrimony.
Elizabeth Bennet With the Most Attitude (Pride and Prejudice)
Let’s finish with a tough one: the smart, generous and a tad prejudicial Lizzie Bennet. And it’s a draw once again between Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 miniseries and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in the 2004 movie Bride & Prejudice, which was directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha.
In the matter of the most attitude, Ehle nails the reprimand when Darcy proposes to her the first time. “I have never desired your good opinion and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly,” she chastens him in a line straight from the book that Ehle manages to make sound natural even if her character is enraged and uncomfortable.
Lalita, the Lizzie of the Bollywood-style Bride & Prejudice, is also quite unmerciful to her Darcy. “I think you should find someone simple and traditional to help you to dance like the natives,” a proud Lalita tells Darcy during his first trip to her native India, just after he’s made a series of unfortunate remarks. And for the rest of the movie, she continues to not withhold anything, telling him things like they are.
Let’s round this out with a mention of Keira Knightley for her work in the 2005 movie — she was nominated for an Oscar after all and she hardly ever leaves us indifferent.
And let’s add an odd mention to the definitely-skippable-but-nonetheless-bizarre 2016 movie adaptation of the mash-up book of the same name, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Lily James plays the sharped-tongued second-eldest Bennet sister here. After James’ Emmy-nominated turn as Pamela Anderson in the Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy, I’m suddenly more interested in Lizzie’s skills as a zombie killer.