Mr. Darcy is All Wet

Admit it. I made you look.

The web has been fluttering with dewy-eyed nostalgia over Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy since this photo of the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch appeared, provoking comparisons with an infamous scene from Firth’s version of Pride and Prejudice. More than once, I have encountered swooning references to this scene (Mr. Darcy stripping off his outer clothing and swimming across a small pond) as one of the most momentous in all of British film. If you’ve never seen it, treat yourself on YouTube.

Personally, I do not have enough expertise in the subject of British cinema to comment on the relative importance of this one scene but I do have the experience of having read the book and, as many also point out, this scene does not occur in the book at all. The purpose of the scene in the film is likely to provide a way to convey to modern viewers a situation that is more subtle and time-appropriate in the book. Mr. Darcy, flustered at finding Elizabeth Bennett visiting his estate unexpectedly, loses enough of his artful self-composure to show her an unexpected vulnerability. I tend to side with the purists who think that the swim was unnecessary (try not to hate me) but I have no suggestion for how to have done it with more authenticity.

I do happen to think the same end was achieved much more neatly and deftly in another film that ironically (but not totally coincidentally) stared Colin Firth as a modern Mr. Darcy, i.e. Bridget Jones’ Diary. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a scene where the stuffy and rigid Mark Darcy is obliged by filial responsibility to show up at a party wearing the most unflattering and hideous sweater anyone ever owned. The moment Bridget sees him and passes judgement on him passes quickly but summarizes the first half of Pride and Prejudice all by itself and sets a firm stage for the rest of the action.

Finally, Mr. Firth getting wet is a motif that repeats itself in one of the better vignettes in the uneven collage-like film Love, Actually. His character in that segment, a writer trying to break his writer’s block on holiday in rural continental Europe, is interrupted and upended by a klutzy maid who can’t speak English. She manages to lose his manuscript in a pond and, to his further horror, goes in after it. He ends up being touched by her attempt to set the matter right and eventually his gratitude blossoms into love. Though predictable, this quiet little story is a joy to watch and a fine example of how it’s often the little gestures that build on each other to disarm and throw the characters off and set the action in higher gear.

Returning to Mr. Cumberbatch’s photo from the top of the post, it’s not a bad starting point for a story but, in the spirit of this post, it would be a meatier challenge to put it into the middle of a story by asking what vital piece of information is being communicated by this moment and what will result from it. My guess is a long sojourn with the dryer and a lecture from someone’s mother. One could start this game by coming up with a caption. For example: “Suddenly the police knew beyond a doubt who had been cutting across Mrs. Beebonnet’s property through her ornamental fish ponds to add details to the subversive graffiti on the old train trestle.” Or simply, “And with that, Jake realized that texting and driving really don’t mix.”

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