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Article: Our Mr Bennet - Remembering Donald Sutherland

Our Mr Bennet - Remembering Donald Sutherland
Donald Sutherland

Our Mr Bennet - Remembering Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennet
Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (dir Joe Wright 2005)

Here at the Jane Austen blog, we were saddened to hear of the recent passing of the actor Donald Sutherland at the age of 88. In this article, we reflect on one of his most iconic performances as Mr Bennet in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. 

The role of fathers in Jane Austen's novels is a peculiar one - patriarchs, in the world of young women that Austen inhabits, are wielders of great power over their daughters' and wives as well as being the targets of Austen's sharp wit. Not as obviously ridiculous as Mr Woodhouse, nor necessarily as financially unscrupulous as Sir Walter Elliot, Mr Bennet has been cause for some debate.  Is he negligent? Absent? Or simply not interested in being involved in the romantic goings-on of his plurality of eccentric daughters? Certainly, it seems that Mr Bennet could have been more proactive in helping his daughters wed properly, but it seems that for the most part, they are able to make their own way. 

It is this disagreement that makes Mr Bennet such a compelling character when it comes to adapting his character for the silver screen. Donald Sutherland's portrayal of the patriarch in Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is, I think, one of the finest examples we have. Though we get to see his sharp wit, scathing humour and solitary character, we also get to see his caring side. In one of the movie's final scenes, when Keira Knightley as Elizabeth confesses her love of Darcy to her father, he is taken aback by her sudden change of heart. But as she explains herself, we see Donald Sutherland's Bennet moved to tears of joy as he says to her, "You really do love him - don't you?" Being honest, watching this scene always moves me to tears. Sutherland's Bennet is a man who respects the intelligence and judgement of his daughter, even if he is sad to see her given over to another man's care. It is this nuance with which Sutherland portrays the Bennet father, which makes his portrayal, in my opinion, one of the finest. 

This is why I was surprised to find out that Sutherland had tried to quit the production, insisting to director Joe Wright that he was not right for the role. Thank god, then, that Wright managed to convince him to stay. Sutherland later cited it as one of his personal favourite filming experiences, full of praise for the young women who played his daughters. X (Twitter) user 'Pride and Prejudice Archive' quotes him as saying; 

“Joe asked me to do it, and it's not something that I normally would have done but such as his passion that I agreed to do it [...] It was delicious, and they all treated me like Papa. Just wonderful. At 70 years old, it would cheer anybody up.”

So it is in this vein that we must say goodbye to a great talent, a man who did one of the great dads of literature a great service. 

Donald Sutherland, 1935-2024

Ellen White is editor of the Jane Austen blog. If you would like to contribute to the blog, she would love to hear from you. Follow this link for more details.

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