I’m a lover of Jane Austen, and have read and re-read her novels for years. I’m not, however, much of a fan of the deluge of Austen spin-offs and continuations that have bombarded the world in recent years. It’s not that I’m a snobby purist who can’t stand the thought of Austen’s precious characters being taken advantage of in our era’s Austen-mania (I’m all for updates and remakes of the original stories, and find the different perspectives interesting); rather, I’m just a tad overwhelmed by all the choices one can make in both book and film spin-offs, and with so many versions and visions and genres to choose from, it tends to water down the original characters and ideas that we found so special in the first place.
Having said that, I rather loved this BBC production of Death Comes to Pemberley, based on the book by P.D. James. I haven’t read the book, and one family member stated that she hated it, so I stayed away. But I came across the 3-episode series on Netflix and gave it a whirl. I’m so glad I did.
It’s several years after the happy coupling of Elizabeth Bennett (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Rhys). They live with their young son and Darcy’s sister Georgianna (Eleanor Tomlinson) at his estate, Pemberley, along with an army of servants, and are planning a ball. Elizabeth’s narcissistic sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman) and her rake of a husband, George Wickham (Matthew William Goode), are on their way to crashing the ball, from which they’ve been banned due to Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgianna when she was only 15. They are accompanied by Wickham’s friend, fellow soldier Denny, who abruptly leaves the carriage and storms off into the woods, after an apparent argument with Wickham. Wickham follows. Two shots ring out. Cut to the carriage careening into Pemberley’s drive with a screaming Lydia; Darcy leads a search party and finds Wickham dragging a dead Denny through the woods, moaning that it’s his fault, he’s killed his friend.
Darcy calls in a magistrate (Trevor Eve) to investigate, and Wickham is subsequently charged with Denny’s murder. The whole thing is rather scandalous, and inflames old resentments; Wickham, however, claims he is innocent. As Darcy busies himself with damage control and assists the magistrate (there’s bad blood between their families) with the investigation, Lizzie worries that her husband is now regretting marrying her because of the whole Wickham thing; they’re also fighting about Georgianna’s two suitors: Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), and a young barrister, Henry Alveston (James Norton). Lizzie has questions about the Colonel’s activities on the night of the murder, and thinks that Georgianna should marry Henry, the man she loves. Darcy won’t hear any criticism of his cousin, and thinks the Colonel is the more respectable choice.
Will Wickham be saved from the gallows? Will Lizzie and Darcy make up their quarrel and see eye to eye? Also, is there a ghost roaming the woods of Pemberley? Where was Colonel Fitzwilliam on the night of the murder? And what does a sickly servant’s son and his sister, an unwed mother, have to do with it all? These questions make for an engrossing tale, as well as the appearance of some well-loved (or loathed) characters from the original book: Lizzie’s hypochondriac mother and her long-suffering father, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; her beloved sister, Jane Bingley; an imperious visit by Lady Catherine.
If I had any criticism at all, it’s the choice of casting Anna Maxwell Martin for Elizabeth. She’s a fine actress, but she’s not Lizzie. I’m sorry, but when I look at her, I don’t see Austen’s dazzling heroine, I see more of a Charlotte Lucas. She lacks the vivacity of Lizzie. Surely six years of marriage and motherhood haven’t dampened her spirit and destroyed her bloom so drastically? At any rate, it’s only slightly distracting to the story; I loved every minute of this fresh take on a genre that’s been rehashed ad nauseum.