The Jane Austen spin-off industry has a strong contender in this opulent and engrossing adaption of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” based on the 2011 novel by P.D. James, the award-winning British mystery writer. The story imagines the lives of the beloved duo of “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell Martin, “Bleak House”) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), six years into their marriage, and adds a murder mystery, to boot.
The action takes place in 1803 at Darcy’s magnificent estate of Pemberley. Elizabeth now runs the substantial household and servants with aplomb and dotes on her two young sons. She and Darcy are happy together. But Elizabeth has not forsaken her simpler roots. Her appearance lacks artifice; she still prefers plain muslin dresses over silk and lace.
In contrast, Darcy’s younger sister, the beautiful Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson, “Jack the Giant Slayer”), who also lives at Pemberley, is fancily dressed as befits an aristocratic girl of marriageable age with two suitors. Darcy favors Georgiana marrying his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward). However, the Colonel’s castle and earldom do not sway Georgiana, as her heart belongs to Henry Alveston (James Norton), an earnest and modest young lawyer from London.
Elizabeth’s ditzy sister, Lydia (Jenna Coleman), and her blaggard husband, Wickham (Matthew Goode), are still not welcome at Pemberley. If you recall, at the end of “Pride and Prejudice,” the two ran off together, in unmarried disgrace, and were only lawfully wed after the couple was promised an annual income, by none other than Darcy.
The night before the annual autumn ball at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s happily married tranquility is shattered, as Lydia makes a startling entrance at Pemberley in a runaway coach, screaming hysterically that Wickham has been murdered. Apparently, Lydia, Wickham and his friend Captain Denny were traveling to Pemberley, in the hopes that Elizabeth would take pity on Lydia and invite her to the ball. But the two men argued and left the carriage in anger, after which two gunshots were heard. A search party finds Wickham panic-stricken, holding Denny’s body and blaming himself for Denny’s murder. And so the plot thickens.
The main action of this exciting two-part, three-hour production involves Wickham’s trial for murder, the impact that Elizabeth’s messy family has on Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s marriage, Georgiana’s engagement, and the lives of some of the servants at Pemberley. The themes of “Pride and Prejudice” continue — the conflict between love and money, passion and prudence, arrogance and humility.
The mystery will keep audiences interested until the dénouement. Nevertheless, the final unraveling is a bit confused and confusing. But this is a character-driven production as much or more than a mystery. And the defiency is overcome by the first-rate acting and writing and the stunning costumes, cinematography, production values, locations and settings. The fabulous Chatsworth House, home to the Cavendish family since 1549, the seat of the Duke and recently deceased Duchess of Devonshire, was shot as Pemberley’s exterior; some of the interior rooms were used as well.
The novel “Death Comes to Pemberley” received many outstanding reviews. But it upset many Austen purists who thought the mystery aspect of the plot was demeaning to Austen and that P.D. James should have stuck to writing about her poet-detective, Adam Dalgliesh (“The Private Patient,” etc.). One concern was with James’s writing style, thought to be a weak version of Austen. But this excellent production, with its two degrees of separation from Austen, should not be compared with Austen or James, just enjoyed for the sparkling TV entertainment it is.
©Emily S. Mendel 2014 All Rights Reserved