sense and sensibility

A Guide To Jane Austen’s Leading Men on Screen

Matthew Macfadyen in Pride and Prejudice
Matthew Macfadyen in Pride and Prejudice Photo: Focus Features

This fall, I found myself wanting to rewatch Jane Austen movies and miniseries. Maybe that’s because after binging The Crown, we’ve all developed a taste for formally dressed English people having difficulties talking about their feelings. Or because, as many have pointed out, watching characters go for long walks and greet each other by asking after the health of the other’s family seems eerily familiar in 2020? Or because, 25 years after Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility was released, it’s time to ask important questions like, “Precisely what kind of bio-threats were hiding in 19th-century English rain?” Whatever the case, it’s clear that this is peak Austen season and, more importantly, high time to make a taxonomy of her leading men. If you, too, have felt the call to revisit the onscreen Austen canon (or catch up with some of the delightful new additions), this list can serve as your guide to her heroines’ (in)famous suitors, from the swoon-worthy to the ones you’ll want to abandon on the moor forever.

The Proto-Fuckboys

12. Greg Wise as John Willoughby, Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Willoughby is, without question, the absolute worst — even more off-putting than Mr. Wickham. (Has any scholar looked into whether Jane Austen was wronged by someone whose last name began with the letter W?) While Wise is supposed to be playing a swaggering, sonnet-reading fuckboy, he always comes off as a little too equivocating, even before he ghosts poor Marianne. I suppose he gets some points for doing his wedding moping on a hill far away from the festivities instead of creeping behind one of the gravestones. But very few points.

11. Matthew Goode as George Wickham, Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)

The problem with most Wickhams — necessary in any adaptation of Pride and Prejudice — is the fact that the actors have to conceal Wickham’s rakishness until Darcy reveals his backstory. But in this Pride and Prejudice sequel, he can flash his, “I’m definitely familiar with all forms of 19th-century birth control,” smile from the beginning. Goode plays up the playboy aspect of Wickham while also leaning heavily on the charm, so it seems believable that both Lydia and Lizzie fell for him.

The Sweet-but-Boring Bros

10. Theo James as Sidney Parker, Sanditon (2019)

James’s Sidney is notable for what being one of the most recent Austen men onscreen allowed him — a few moments of his naked butt. Beyond the butt? Not remarkable. Maybe a little louder and a little more rugged than men in top hats past, but nothing to write home about.

9. Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Miller, Mansfield Park (1999)

Much like Sidney Parker, Edmund Miller (played by Jonny Lee Miller) would fade into the background at, say, the convention from Austenland. He does inch up the list slightly for the sheer quotability of his love confession, “As a man loves a woman, as a hero loves a heroine.”

The Brooders Part 1

8. Sam Riley as Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Riley reaps the benefits of Austen fan-fiction like no other leading man. You know what makes a Darcy stand out in the world of babbling men in ascots? Sword fighting. Plus, while Darcy has always been a goth kid in spirit, the undead plague lets him embrace the all-black ensemble he was always meant to wear. And nothing gets the blood pounding like longing looks exchanged in a potter’s field erupting with the arms of the undead.

7. Matthew Rhys as Mr. Darcy, Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)

If a post-Pride and Prejudice story frees Wickham, it leaves Mr. Darcy with a problem. How do you take a sad boy transformed into the face-stroking hero of a horny English major’s dreams and drop him into day-to-day life, when there might be more to do than make dramatic confessions of love? Rhys hits the right notes as a kind of lovable curmudgeon, with a natural inclination to bow to convention and a still-developing trust in his wife’s better sense. Plus, he gets to be an adorable dad!

The Bumbling Mumblers

6. Johnny Flynn as George Knightly, Emma. (2020)

It takes a lot for a man to make an impression above a collar so popped you can barely see his eyes peeking over it. One of the few Austen suitors to be longtime besties with their beloved means there’s more opportunity for any version of George to do more than look pensively into the middle distance. But what puts Flynn so high on the list is the kind of frantic energy he brings to his appropriately bumbling confession of love. And the little victory fist pump he does post-proposal (after being unfazed by his intended’s stress-induced nosebleed)!

5. Hugh Grant as Mr. Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Before there was mumblecore, there was Hugh Grant’s stutter style. His Mr. Ferrars is both endearing in concrete ways (he’s up for an imaginary sword fight! He’s more interested in people’s feelings than society’s rules!) and completely confounding ways (he really can rock those strange, strange pants). While he doesn’t get much screen time compared to his co-stars, he manages to fill every drawing room he enters with a polite longing and deep, deep discomfort, which is all you can ask from a man in an Austen film.

The Brooders Part 2

4. Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon, Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Rickman’s Colonel Brandon is the mirror opposite of his arguably most iconic character, Severus Snape, and thus a masterclass in how to deal with your feelings when your crush is just not that into you. Even as his friends explain, “Dude, you’re rich; women have almost no autonomy, the fact that you check none of her boxes is not an issue” (I’m paraphrasing), he accepts that he’s not Marianne’s type and keeps a polite distance while doing helpful things like offering a knife to help her cut reeds or acting as a 19th-century Uber for Mrs. Dashwood when Marianne comes down with caught-in-the-rain fever. Plus his absolute joy when she realizes she could go for an older man is very cute.

3. Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Those in Firth’s corner in the Darcy versus Darcy debate put a lot of weight on what one Youtube video (not entirely correctly) titles, “The Lake Scene (Colin Firth Strips Off).” Firth’s Darcy actually leaves on his flowing white shirt to go for a swim. Because of modesty? Because he’s the kind of guy who looks for life’s little discomforts to always maintain a mood that could be described as soggy? Ultimately though, Firth is more continuously — if charmingly — ornery, which might be closer to the text but doesn’t read as well on screen.

2. Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice (2005)

There’s a formula more complicated than whatever was on that Good Will Hunting chalkboard that will predict whether you’re team Macfadyen or team Firth. I think it’s like: the age you are when you first watch either minus how many episodes of Succession you’ve seen times how recently you’ve been exposed to that scene in Love Actually when Firth tries to sing a Frankie Valli song. Or, it might just come down to that hand has been GIFed a thousand times — the hand that somehow captures 432 pages of longing with just a flex.

The Sweet Cinnamon Roll Too Pure for This World

1. Simon Woods as Mr. Bingley, Pride and Prejudice (2005)

While the Firth versus Macfayden debate rages on ad infinitum, the truth is that it’s a red herring. Neither one of their brooding, bristly bachelors is the most swoon-worthy suitor to populate Jane Austen’s world. Instead, it’s the “sensible, good humored, [and] lively” Mr. Bingley, as portrayed by Simon Woods. I’ll admit that in my youth one of the glowering, dark and pensive Mr. Darcys would have bumped Woods’ Mr. Bingley out of the top spot. But in Austen’s worlds dominated by mens’ grimaces, smirks, wolfish grins, and pained smiles, someone with a wide-open countenance, who smiles with his whole face and doesn’t care who sees it, is more than just refreshing — it’s hot.

A Guide to Jane Austen’s Leading Men on Screen