Death Comes to Pemberley (BBC)

death comes to pemberleyy

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.

 

The Terror

the terror

The Terror is AMC’s limited series (10 episodes) based on Dan Simmons’ book, which is a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage in 1847.

The two naval ships involved are Erebus, captained by Sir John (Ciaran Hinds), and The Terror, led by Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). The two ships become stuck in the ice, trapping them in frigid temperatures and constant darkness in winter. They must contend with illness and the squabbling of men in close quarters; not only that, but it becomes clear that something is out there on the ice, something that hunts them.

Like TNT’s The Alienist, this is a 10 episode limited series, a form I’m beginning to really enjoy–an entire story contained in one season, but longer than a movie, so that some backstory and character-building can be established.

two captains
Ciaran Hinds as Sir John and Jared Harris as Francis

Sir John is perhaps your typical Victorian captain, likable but full of hubris, eager to find glory on his last commission, blind in many ways to the mortal danger the expedition has found itself in. Francis is much more realistic and cautious, constantly warning Sir John and suggesting various plans to find help, but Sir John stubbornly refuses them all. The relationship between these two men is strained, not only professionally, but personally: in flashbacks, we learn that at home, Francis had proposed to Sir John’s niece twice, and her refusals stemmed not only from her concerns about being a sailor’s wife, but by Sir John’s refusal to give consent. The fact that Francis is an Irishman plays heavily in both Sir John’s refusal as well as Francis’ stalling career. It’s clear Francis never wanted to be on this expedition, but is there to “look after” Sir John, and perhaps win his beloved’s approval.

The lone woman (besides Sir John’s wife and niece in the flashbacks) is a native Inuit woman who the men call Lady Silence (Nive Nielson). While out on a mission to send a message to a distant outpost, a contingent of men think they see some sort of creature and shoot. They find that they’ve shot a native man, the woman’s father. Their doctors cannot save the man, and they cannot get any information out of the woman, despite Francis and his first mate able to speak her language; she remains stubbornly silent, hence the name. The surgeon on the Erebus (a surgeon was not considered a “doctor” back then, and was a bit looked down upon by the uppity doctor of the Terror), Mr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) forms a tentative bond with the woman as he tries to solve the mystery of who she is and what she may know about the creature.

lady silence
Nive Nielson as Lady Silence

Meanwhile, Petty Officer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) is stirring up trouble aboard the ships. He harbors ambition beyond his social status, and attempts to ingratiate himself with his betters; when that doesn’t work, he develops a bitter contempt for authority, and shrewdly manipulates the men around him as conditions worsen and become desperate. Hickey’s story arc will become pivotal towards the conclusion of the series as the main human antagonist. Nagaitis (whose amazing work I’ve encountered in To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters, as Branwell Bronte) manages to infuse the troublesome Hickey with an oily charm; even when he’s being whipped, that slight, condescending smirk never leaves his face.

There are many antagonists the men must face: the cold, fear, starvation and the prospect of cannibalism, illness, madness, personal demons, as well as Hickey’s machinations. The beast itself is almost an afterthought; that is, until he strikes, about every few episodes. I was a bit puzzled about the beast’s very existence–what is he, exactly? Demon, monster, native guardian spirit? I never quite figured it out, but he’s also clearly a symbol of the vicious forces destroying the expedition. A symbol with teeth.

james fitzjames
Tobias Menzies as James Fitzjames

Like the landscape itself, the pace of the story is often glacial, taking its time with character development and building the momentum. Sometimes it felt tedious, but most of the time I didn’t mind, enjoying getting to know these characters, especially Francis, who emerges as the hero of the tale. He nearly succumbs to alcoholism early on, but once he overcomes it, his determination, bravery, integrity and loyalty to the men is outstanding and admirable. His poignant decision at the end of the story was the only one he could make, and a little lump formed in my throat at the sheer sadness of it all.

Part horror, part adventure story, part psychological drama, The Terror is a strange tale, but gripping and impressive, unlike anything I’ve seen on TV in a while.

All Things Alienist

alienist book

I read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist when it came out in 1994. I loved it, and then promptly forgot what it was exactly about except that a person called an “alienist” (an early psychologist, so dubbed because they believed the mentally ill were alienated from their own natures) was trying to solve a crime involving a serial killer with his knowledge of the human mind.

Fast forward 24 years, and previews of TNT’s limited series The Alienist reminded me of it, and I got very excited. I promptly watched the show (twice through, for good measure) and picked up the book again. On having discovered that there was a sequel called The Angel of Darkness, I picked that up, too. Call me obsessive.

On re-reading the book, I was eager to discover how the writers of the show had adapted the novel–what was kept in, what was left out, what was changed completely. The book gives much more detail concerning New York City of 1896, historically and architecturally, though the lavish sets on the show brought it vividly to life as well. Small details were changed, dialogue tightened up and scenes re-arranged. But I was more curious about the characters: how did they measure up?

alienist

The book is narrated by Dr. Kreizler’s friend, the New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans). In the show, he’s an illustrator rather than a reporter, which solves a few plot quandaries and tightens up the storytelling. In the book, he can seem a bit boorish (this is especially true in Angel of Darkness, which he does not narrate), but he’s more likable in the show. The show has him develop feelings for Sara Howland (Dakota Fanning), a family friend who, as the first woman to work in the NYPD (as a secretary to Teddy Roosevelt), helps with the investigation. In the book, the author nixes that development fairly early on, preferring to keep Sara the proverbial independent woman who needs no man.

john moore

Sara herself is warmer and more playful in the book, while the show keeps her somewhat cold and aloof, wrapped in a kind of armor that John tries to penetrate along the course of the show. He nearly succeeds, but it’s left up in the air as to whether she’ll actually let him in.

sara howland

Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), perhaps, remains the least changed from book to show, although we get to see some of his more intimate moments on the screen that we couldn’t in the book, especially with his love interest, his mute ward and housekeeper Mary Palmer (who was changed from a blonde, blue-eyed beauty to a Native American beauty played by Q’Orianka Kilcher). These scenes are touching and gives us more insight into Kreizler’s vulnerability, while also setting us up more efficiently for the tragedy to come.

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The Sergeant Detectives Isaacson, Marcus and Lucius (Douglas Smith and Mathew Shear) are fraternal twins in the show, rather than Marcus being the older brother in the book, but they remain essentially the same bickering, brilliant pair. The show, for reasons beyond my comprehension, created a subplot with Marcus having an affair with a lovely single mother, a thread that had no connection to the main storyline whatsoever.

Isaacsons

I was pleasantly surprised that in the show, Teddy Roosevelt (in his role as Commissioner to the Police Department) was not portrayed as the knee-slapping, cowboy/adventurer  who often cried out “By thunder!” , as he was in the book. Perhaps that was the man’s actual personality, but every time I encountered him in the book, I cringed a little bit. He seemed like a caricature, someone to laugh and roll your eyes at. Brian Geraghty played the future president with a subtlety and depth that made him come across as a real person, while still making it clear he was a man of action.

teddy roosevelt

So what about our murderer? John Beecham’s life and motivations, as uncovered by our team of investigators, follows pretty much the same route as in the book, though the book naturally went into more detail. The show invented a red herring in the form of Willem Van Burgen, the son of a powerful Old New York family, to distract the investigation and put a spotlight on the way members of these families were nearly beyond the law.

The climax, while taking place in the same building in both book and show, played out quite differently. I preferred the show ending, as it was tighter and more believable. The book had Beecham clinging to Kreizler’s leg, weeping and whining, before being ultimately shot by Captain Connor. The show had Beecham defiant until the end, taunting him and trying to get away. I’m not sure which is more believable psychologically, but the show ending is better, in my opinion.

I’m about halfway through The Angel of Darkness, and I’ll have a proper review once I’m through.

If you like psychological crime thrillers, either the book or show of The Alienist (or if you’re obsessive like me, both) will keep you entertained for quite a while.