“We play our part so it may continue after we are gone,” proclaims Georgiana Darcy (Eleanor Tomlinson) to her sister-in-law, Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin). She speaks of her home, Pemberley, the magnificent estate presided over by Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Rhys), and the great legacy of their family. These are characters of Jane Austen’s issue, stars of the impassioned romantic tale Pride and Prejudice.
Death Comes to Pemberley reimagines these characters, older, wearier and hopefully a little wiser. As Georgiana and the title suggest, however, the public reputation of the family and the house that represents it across the centuries are the linchpin of the narrative in the BBC’s miniseries adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, with the past reaching even beyond Pride and Prejudice for its repercussions in the present.
If James, and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi after her, spark danger in the walls of Pemberley with the darker stakes of the macabre spectre of death, they quickly redirect this morbid strand into reinvigorated machinations over love, reputation and loyalty. Elizabeth’s sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman) and her husband George Wickham (Matthew Goode) are journeying to rudely interrupt the Darcys’ latest ball.
There is some dispute between Wickham and Captain Denny (Tom Canton) that is taken into the darkness of the woodlands, and when two gunshots cause the horses to bolt, Lydia is sent hurtling into Pemberley crying murder. Soon, not only is Wickham’s neck is at stake, but the reputation of Darcy and his estate are threatened by association, and his buried past with Wickham and fearsomely protective hold over Georgiana begins to divide him and Elizabeth.
In its devotion to familiar Austen themes, Death Comes to Pemberley could easily be seen as a broadly successful homage. Indeed, the BBC has crafted an engaging, handsome and well-cast production; it’s the sort of easy prestige product that is often fashioned for the BBC’s Christmas schedule. There’s a discomfiting tawdriness to the narrative, however, and it’s one often bolstered by director Daniel Percival’s unfortunate liking for a bombastic musical cue. The rather shapeless stab at a murder mystery — too integral to the narrative to be this transparently crafted — is too susceptible to moments like Episode 2’s telegraphed, bombastic collision of two disparate plot strands.
Percival’s visual imagination, too, is disappointingly simple, with the actors so often isolated in simple close-up with blank, blurred backgrounds, and cinematographic imagination provoked only by the standard flashback haze or lyrical wander into the natural world. Light hangs off the curls of Anna Maxwell Martin with the familiar pensiveness that her frequent forays into period drama — most gloriously in Bleak House, which remains a gold standard for the BBC’s 1800s literary adaptations — but Elizabeth’s apparent satisfaction with the freedom of her solitude in the grounds of Pemberley is just one of several character suggestions that never quite cohere.
Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys, veterans of this sort of unconsciously modernised period adaptation, are almost too likeable as the Darcys, a couple whose antagonistic relationship in Pride and Prejudice often made them engagingly maddening literary heroes. Rhys soon unpacks the weary volatility of Darcy, but Elizabeth is returned to the difficult character spot of a generous woman who risks reducing herself to a mere channel for the emotions and conflicts of other characters. For all her sympathetic qualities, Maxwell Martin is never able to crack that difficult paradox, as Jennifer Ehle and Keira Knightley managed in their adaptations of Austen’s text.
In a story where the “sacrifice” of women to the betterment of men (“to protect the sanctity of high rank”, as one female character puts it), stranding one of the great literary heroines in a role where she largely functions as an observer and listener rather than an active instigator of action seems counterintuitive. Jenna Coleman’s impetuous, high-pitched Lydia, with her wily play-acting, Joanna Scanlan’s measured, poignant head servant Mrs Reynolds, and particularly Tomlinson’s passionate, conflicted Georgiana, for their briefer characterisations, stand as more indicative of the soft feminist bent of the narrative. Happiness for women, though, is still constantly bound with their ties to men, whether through marriage, or, in one of the less graceful moments of tragedy, in sibling loyalty.
Death Comes to Pemberley cannot ultimately stand up to the imposing majesty of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s a comparison even the BBC invites, with the DVD release accompanied by a double DVD gift set coupling Percival’s miniseries with the now legendary 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. That …Pemberley, with the meatier darkness of its events, cannot withstand even half the running time of Pride and Prejudice, speaks a great deal about how tactile and sharp Austen’s storytelling is. The division of the Darcys in …Pemberley seems too facile, unbelievable of Darcy’s stubborn character and Elizabeth’s headstrong intelligence, and facilitating it with a tale of death and concealed infidelities seems rather gratuitous.
The DVD release of Death Comes to Pemberley includes no extras. The special double DVD gift set with the 2009 re-release of Pride and Prejudice, however, includes several extras for the 1995 miniseries, including ‘From Page to Screen: The Making of Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Pride and Prejudice: A Turning Point for Period Drama’ and a featurette detailing the differences in print and negative restorations.