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A Guide to Jane Austen’s Leading Men Onscreen

7 min read

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Images by Columbia Pictures, Focus Features, Netflix and Focus Features

Persuasion, Netflix’s new addition to the extensive Jane Austen canon of swoons and sweeping shots of giant lawns, has fans of the iconic author divided. On one hand, the heroine’s use of Millennial-speak accompanied by a Ferris Buller–style fourth-wall break could seem sacrilegious — not so much an adaptation as a complete departure from what Austen stories are all about. On the other, as long as a heroine is gazing longingly at a man who is gazing longingly back at her, but only when she’s not looking, isn’t that the essence of an Austen romance? Whatever your thoughts on Persuasion, the film has two new leading men to pine over and pit against all the other handsome bachelors in high-waisted pants that have come before them. From the sensitive souls to the incorrigible rogues, we’ve ranked the men of Austen’s screen adaptations with points for charm, poetic flourishes within romantic confessions, and, of course, how long they can keep their love a secret from everyone but the audience.

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.

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 leaning heavily on the charm, so it seems believable that both Lydia and Lizzie fell for him.

Available to stream on PBS Masterpiece

As soon as Golding appears onscreen, you know Mr. Elliot is trouble — the music is pure cad underscoring. Although Golding’s Elliot definitely belongs with Austen’s villainous bad boys, it’s hard to put him in the Willoughby/Wickham category completely, possibly because the uneven Persuasion never clarifies his true intentions. Did he have feelings for Anne that happen to be conveniently supplanted with unbridled lust for Mrs. Clay just as Anne was going to dump him anyway? Did he propose in a show of manly bravado just to mess with Wentworth, or was he really just bumbling and looking for love after the loss of his wife?

Available to stream on Netflix

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.

Available to stream on PBS Masterpiece

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.”

Available to stream on PBS Masterpiece

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 is 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.

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 still-developing trust in his wife’s better sense. Plus he gets to be an adorable dad!

This is really a case of points off for the dismount. As far as Austen suitors go, Wentworth is kind and a good listener, curbs his natural instinct to try to protect the object of his affection with a feminist mentality, and even saved a beached whale. But it’s nearly impossible to crack the top-five charming bachelors when you let a sweet girl you’ve been flirting with jump off a precipice without catching her. ABC, romantic heroes — always be catching!

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 his 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 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)!

Available to stream on Freevee

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.

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.

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, Firth is more continuously — if charmingly — ornery, which might be closer to the text but doesn’t read as well onscreen.

Available to stream on Hulu

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 this: the age you were when you first watched 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 that has been GIFed a thousand times — the hand that somehow captures 432 pages of longing with just a flex.

Available to stream on Vudu

While the Firth versus Macfadyen debate rages on ad infinitum, the truth is that it’s a red herring. Neither of their brooding, bristly bachelors is the most swoon-worthy suitor to populate Jane Austen’s world. It’s the “sensible, good humored, 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’s Mr. Bingley out of the top spot. But in Austen’s worlds dominated by men’s 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 — he’s hot.