I should begin by noting that my only prior experience with Laurence Olivier was in The Prince and The Showgirl with Marilyn Monroe. Obviously, his performance as the bumbling prince left little hope that he was adequate for the role of Mr. Darcy in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson. A sometimes fervent Jane Austen snob, I was appalled to think of what could happen in an old Hollywood version of Austen’s best loved work. The dresses were from the wrong time period and the relationship between Darcy and his aunt horribly inaccurate- and these were conclusions I made before even watching the film. Which just goes to show how one should not judge a movie before one has actually seen it.
I must tell you reader, I loved it. Loved It!
Olivier as Darcy was perfect, dare I say even more so than the quintessential Darcy played by Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC version. While straying from the book a bit, Olivier’s Darcy is adorably human from the start. A slight from Elizabeth early on does nothing to deter him from being close to her. His expressions display utmost joy when in her presence, and you can almost feel as if Darcy and Elizabeth share some sort of inside joke we’re not privy to. Darcy’s vulnerability is something actually seen in this rendition. Even in the book, one is given only a glimpse of Darcy’s real feeling. In this version you get the full view as he secures his aunt to threaten Elizabeth with taking away all of Darcy’s inheritance if she accepts the supposed proposal. Elizabeth blatently states she cares nothing for money, and Darcy discovers her true love for him. Greer Garson’s Elizabeth almost feels like the temptress to the writhing Darcy fighting for her affections.
While the Colin Firth P&P is undisputedly ‘the classic’ and the 2005 P &P, a well done remake, I would have to say I like Darcy better in the 1940 version- even with all it’s flaws. The vulnerabilities of Darcy in these two later versions are limited to the Colin Firth( soaking shirt) lake scene, and a flexation of the hand ( twice in Elizabeth’s presence) by the worthy Matthew McFayden.
Criticized for being overtheatrical Olivier only pushes aside the stuffiness that makes Darcy sometimes too perfect. I thought his ‘over acting’, if indeed that’s what it was, rather refreshing. Needless to say, I enjoy a little humanity in my men, and there is something to be said for full on emotion. Olivier gets mad, he smiles more, he defies his aunt in company just to be near Elizabeth at the piano. He leads Elizabeth with a hand on the small of her back into a room, and saves her from the exasperating Mr. Collins. An excellent, excellent tribute to all that Jane Austen was trying to say but couldn’t, Laurence Olivier pulls off Mr. Darcy beautifully ( even if he does do it in a bow tie instead of a cravat).