In his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Joe Wright attempted to undo the long shadow cast by Colin Firth’s pitch perfect Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries. Instead of watching his romantic hero emerge from a pond, he clad his Darcy in a different, slightly more dishevelled white shirt and watched him walk across a misty English field in the warming dawn light. This was the moment Matthew MacFadyen shot to international fame and into the hearts of millions in only his sixth film credit.

Everyone has their own favourite on-screen Darcy and their own opinions about which is most true to Jane Austen’s awkward, difficult, and fabulously rich love interest. Whatever one’s opinion between Firth (arguably closer to Austen’s page) and MacFadyen, however, the latter embodies the brooding, yearning, and emotional turmoil that gets right to the heart of the book’s romance, misunderstandings, and second chances. Joe Wright favours warmth over social satire in his recreation, and an extraordinary tender Darcy is exactly what it required.

Matthew Macfadyen Keira Knightley Pride And Prejudice

Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

Compared to other British heart-throbs turned extraordinary character actors (think James McAvoy or Hugh Grant), MacFadyen has somewhat flown under the radar. After leaving RADA at the age of 21, MacFadyen made his name in theatre, working with Cheek by Jowl, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal National Theatre. His screen ‘discovery’ came in the form of Hareton Earnshaw in a Masterpiece Theatre Wuthering Heights. A few more television period dramas (The Way We Live Now), spy dramas (Spooks), and one underseen New Zealand indie (In My Father’s Den) later, he was onto Pride and Prejudice and his first truly iconic film role.

Matthew Macfadyen Death At A Funeral

Courtesy of: MGM

Mr Darcy was followed by Frank Oz’s delightfully irreverent Death at a Funeral. Daniel Howells, the quintessentially British protagonist holding his father’s funeral together with both hands and an increasingly unstable upper lip while relatives, partners and long-lost lovers inadvertently wreak havoc, is both the opposite and forebearer to his more colourful performances down the line. Daniel is often the least chaotic force on screen, yet MacFadyen balances the straight man foil with Daniel’s encroaching breakdown, mining the humour and pathos of each. The result is understated comedy that that holds its own against the madcap proceedings, staying just sympathetic enough to hold interest but not dampening audience glee at each new horror.

Roles in the forgettable Incendiary and awards-bait Frost/Nixon followed in 2008, and between then and his Succession debut in 2018 MacFadyen has largely filled his time with television dramas and by being the best part of otherwise mediocre films: Athos in the 2011 Three Musketeers, J. P. Morgan in The Current War, and Clara’s father in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. A stunning exception in this period was his second Joe Wright/Keira Knightley collaboration, the superlative 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina.

Here MacFadyen plays Anna’s philandering brother Stepan ‘Stiva’ Oblonsky, and this titled civil servant may be audiences’ first glimpse of Tom Wambsgans’ eccentric bluster. Stiva, not Anna, introduces viewers to Tolstoy and Wright’s world; as the latter unfolds his ‘all the world’s a stage’ reimagining, MacFadyen’s stylised self-confidence is the ideal audience conduit, swanning through anterooms and stage doors that simultaneously act as his office and house, seamlessly integrating the opening affair that ignites the plot. Later, he wrings all fun and filth from a metaphorical conversation comparing extramarital flings and fresh baked buns.

Matthew Macfadyen Anna Karenina

Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

Most recently, MacFadyen has found recognition on television in Succession and Quiz. The former, currently in production on its third season, sees MacFadyen at his weirdest and most glorious. Anchored by an unshakeable American accent, he plays a heiress’ long-term partner, then husband, with a corporate New York swagger masking a crippling inferiority complex. Tom’s sayings and doings are often reprehensible – sometimes hilariously, sometimes upsettingly – and yet MacFadyen keeps him grounded in humanity. The occasional emotional truth hits like a punch in the gut.

MacFadyen made for a much humbler antihero as Major Charles Ingram, the awkward, oddly endearing heart of ITV coughing drama miniseries Quiz. In this dramatisation Charles was not the heart of the scam but instead the increasingly ridiculous, pathetic face. MacFadyen refuses to cheapen the character with pleas for sympathy, rather letting the world run one step ahead as his Ingram looks to make sense of it all. While the show passes no judgement on his involvement or culpability, watching him take a beating in the public eye is difficult.

None of this vulnerability is found in The Assistant (released on VOD on April 28th), Kitty Green’s hit from Sundance and Berlin, where MacFadyen plays a HR representative who hears protagonist Jane’s worries about her unseen boss’s conduct. MacFadyen exudes confidentiality, if not quite warmth, at first; he is a professional, after all. However, as Jane struggles to verbalise the exploitation she fears is happening, his steady voice, blank face, and refusal to read between the lines becomes excruciating for Jane and viewers alike. Just when it should be over, MacFadyen masterfully cinches this pivotal scene with a final throwaway line: ‘You don’t have anything to worry about, you’re not his type’ It is proof that he had been listening all along but refusing to acknowledge more than the surface. The moment underscores Jane’s realisation of powerlessness, irrevocably altering the film’s atmosphere.

The Assistant Matthew Macfadyen

Courtesy of: Bleecker Street

With his chameleonic ability to disappear into characters, MacFadyen is undoubtedly one of the finest actors working today. The vast range of roles and styles he has taken on has left its mark on stage and screen, and with his recent television success one hopes his profile may be on the rise.