Though hardly enough is known about Jane Austen's too-brief, non-celebrity life, there is one biographical certainty we can surmise from this distance: No one ever asked her whom she'd pick to play Mr. Darcy in the movies.
May I weigh in? ("Insolent girl!" Lizzie Bennet would scold.) I do so only after having rented, streamed, watched, read, and taken notes during a week of adaptation immersion. Thus "pleased with the preference of one," I announce that the head-and-shoulders winner of Best Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth (1995 Masterpiece Theatre, 300 minutes.)
A geological sample of Darcy's core, as portrayed so beautifully by Firth, would show the following layers: at the bottom, his breeding and wealth. Undeniable. On top of that, confusion, the push-pull of class--egad, 10,000 pounds a year and a house 10 times larger than Downton Abbey! Who wouldn't be conflicted, falling in love beneath his station with a penniless girl in possession of an insufferable mother? Next: love-struck silence. And finally, which we learn from the housekeeper who has known him since he was four, a heart of pure gold. Before Disc Two, it is only hinted at. He stares at Elizabeth Bennet with an intensity that promises passion and--spoiler alert--a happy ending.
Might I be biased because Colin Firth played the hero in the film adaption of my novel, Then She Found Me? Yes. But that romantic attachment was wholly one-sided: mine. We never met. When I learned that he'd signed on to the project, opposite the star (Helen Hunt), I reported quickly to my British editor, hoping that her patriotic pride might have some promotional value for the Commonwealth edition. She--a lesbian, no less-- wrote back, "None of us in this office has ever forgotten Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in his wet shirt!"
That, too. But top honors for this reason: That face. The roiling emotions kept in check but detected by the hopeful if not besotted viewer. We novelists know that to bring the reader around, to accept a character, to love him, to approve of a match, we have to plant sympathetic seeds along the way. Not that Firth's Darcy goes amiable on us, but when gazing on Elizabeth his face is a drama festival of pain, longing and dyspepsia. Watch him watch her while she plays the pianoforte, after she has come around, after the wet shirt. A viewer herself could get a tingle.
First runner-up: Matthew MacFadyen from the 2005 Keira Knightley movie, the two since reunited in Anna Karenina, he as her brother. But Jane Austen ordered up "very handsome," whereas Mr. MacFadyen, in keeping with the production, which drabs down everything domestic and sartorial, leans toward sidekick/wingman in the looks department.
Third place: David Rintoul from the 1980 BBC series. We don't see, until Darcy's last-try declaration that his "affections and wishes are unchanged," anything but unadulterated pride of the unmelting kind, manifested in his posture, his top hat, his smirk, surely the misapprehensions of the director.
Lastly, yes, Laurence Olivier, co-starring with a 35-year-old Greer Garson playing 20-year-old Elizabeth, who is dressed like Scarlett O'Hara. Wrong, wrong, wrong! May I sum up his Darcy as simply having too much wrist? A fey suitor who suggests bachelorhood becomes him? Reputation and knighthood aside, Sir Laurence's 1940's rendering of 1813 chemistry comes without a roil or even a simmer.
Would Jane Austen agree? Pride, abominable pride, makes me say yes. Imagine her view of this miracle: her characters behind a wall of glass, moving about Longbourn, at Netherfield and Pemberley, in Hertfordshire and Derbyshire and London, brought to life but not on stage; here but not here. I dare say she herself would pronounce Mr. Firth the ultimate Mr. Darcy, and be "violently delighted" with our coronation.