Ryan Keys plays a Darcy who stays notably clear of lakesAmelia Ya Wen with permission for Varsity

When the team behind the new student adaptation of Pride and Prejudice were filming at Forde Abbey in Dorset, a member of the public approached them and asked when Ryan Keys, the actor playing Darcy, would be getting in the lake. During my interview with the directors, Matilda Barker reiterated her position: “We could not put Ryan in lakes!”

“All three directors have more experience in theatre than film”

Beyond not wanting Ryan to catch hypothermia, this decision was motivated by a desire to differentiate the film from earlier adaptations. The trouble with producing another Pride and Prejudice film is that the 1995 and 2005 versions are so culturally ubiquitous. However, as director and screenwriter Holly Sahota argued, this need not be an obstacle: “The wonderful thing about the book is that everyone who reads it will imagine it slightly differently, and I just wanted to make a version which was how I pictured it.”

All three directors have more experience in theatre than film. Hence, they approached Pride and Prejudice the way a theatre director might handle Shakespeare. Rather than aim for “the most accurate adaptation”, the trio sought “a version that says something different”.

Director Holly Sahota deliberately chose to cast a mixed-race ElizabethAmelia Ya Wen with permission for Varsity

One element of this was their decision to cast a mixed-race Elizabeth. Coming from an Indian-British background herself, history student Holly Sahota was inspired by her studies of colonial India to make this creative decision. “For British men with the East India Company, stationed in the interior of India, it became ridiculously common for them to live with an Indian woman and have mixed-race children,” Holly explained. “If they were born fairly light-skinned, then sometimes they would be taken back to Britain by the father’s family and would have some opportunities within British society, but would also spend time being treated like an exotic pet.”

While acknowledging that this was hardly Austen’s intention, Holly believes that it’s plausible for the Bennet sisters to be mixed-race: “In the text, Mrs Bennet has married up from the middle class so […] her family could have been a respectable military family or merchants of some kind involved with the East India Company.”

Cinematographer Amelia Ya Wen operates equipment borrowed from CUFAHoly Sahota with permission for Varsity

To avoid accusations of “changing Austen”, this aspect is primarily communicated through the visuals rather than the screenplay. Director and costume designer Rose Beedle sought to incorporate south Asian culture into her designs, which was “surprisingly easy to do […] because Regency styles in general borrow a lot from those styles.” For instance, the second half of the film sees Darcy’s costumes increasingly incorporate Paisley patterns. “It’s sort of an acknowledgment on Darcy’s part of Elizabeth’s heritage and him accepting that,” Rose explained.

“Combining friendship with producing a film was never going to be easy”

The main other new dimension was inspired by Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Emma. Like the sections of Emma, the four scenes of Holly’s 20-minute screenplay each reflect a different season and stage in the main couple’s relationship. Impressed with Greta Gerwig’s use of colour palettes in Little Women (2019), Rose aimed to align the costumes with these seasons.

According to Camdram, these four scenes are supposed to “illustrate the wider vision for a full filmed production”. I asked Holly how she would approach a longer feature. “I would like to have all five Bennet sisters,” she responded eagerly, “and I would love to pull inspiration from Gerwig’s Little Women and have them interact in a very naturalistic, slightly chaotic way so you can really believe they’re siblings.” Her other plans include focusing on Lydia’s storyline and – surely most importantly – giving the Bennets a cat and Darcy a large dog.

The friendships among the team undoubtedly facilitated the filming processHolly Sahota with permission for Varsity

From this interview alone, it was clear that the trio share a strong bond. Each director was full of praise for the others, with Holly exclaiming about Rose: “This woman was printing fabric! She was boiling cornstarch in order to starch Darcy’s collar!” “She hand-sewed so many things,” Matilda added, “and she didn’t need to.”

Nevertheless, combining friendship with producing a film was never going to be easy. Rose recalled having to establish a rule when they went out for dinner not to talk about Pride and Prejudice until dessert. Another similar idea was the “Pride and Prejudice Hat”. “If we were hanging out and you wanted to say something about Pride and Prejudice, you had to put on the hat,” mimed Rose jokingly.

“Their friendship undoubtedly proved an asset during the filmmaking process”

Their friendship undoubtedly proved an asset during the filmmaking process – but that doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing. From pinecone foraging to malfunctioning SD cards, the team experienced countless challenges. “I don’t think we ended up, for any of these scenes, using a single location we originally planned,” laughed Holly.

Thus, her advice for student filmmakers is: “It’s better to have something that exists, and that’s beautiful, even if it’s slightly different to what you had pictured than to give up when you hit roadblocks.” Likewise, Rose observed that sometimes the best ideas arise on the day, recalling her attempts to contain Holly’s squeal during a particularly good take.


Mountain View

Clay babies and pregnant golems

Holly cringed: “My throat kind of inadvertently made a noise that was between ‘aah’ and a tractor, and everyone looked at me all ‘do not mess up this take with your reaction noises’. Rose grabs me from behind, and fully gets her arm and plugs it over my mouth […] By the end of the take, somehow, my jaw was around Rose’s arm, so I guess in that sense I did bite her.”

While I cannot recommend biting your co-editors, this trio’s can-do attitude certainly provides an example to other student filmmakers. With zero experience and kit loaned from CUFA, the group have gone on to produce an elaborate short in a single term. I can’t wait to see how it has turned out!

Pride and Prejudice is set to be released in May.