As the bicentenary year of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice draws to a close the BBC have found a foolproof way of racking up the Christmas ratings. Probably all too aware that their own 1995 adaptation of Austen’s novel couldn’t be topped (partially thanks to the Bridget Jones’s Diary novels and films Colin Firth’s turn as Darcy lives on in the minds of many), the beeb turned instead to P. D. James’ Pride and Prejudice sequel Death Comes to Pemberley.
We flash forward 6 years after the conclusion of P&P to find Elizabeth and Darcy living at Pemberley. Preparations for an annual ball are interrupted by the death of Captain Denny, a minor character from Austen’s novel, a friend and colleague of the infamous Wickham who becomes prime suspect for Denny’s murder.
Although the costumes and sets are as lavish as any period drama devotee would wish – as in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, Chatsworth House provides the location for Pemberley – the story, especially in terms of pacing, is not up to scratch.
Although the truth about Denny’s death can be guessed even if you haven’t read James’ book, what’s far more pleasing is the way in which Death Comes to Pemberley’s narrative is closely tied to that of Pride and Prejudice. At times this might prove confusing for anyone who doesn’t know the novel well, but for fans of Austen flashbacks to occurrences from Pride and Prejudice, as well as added backstory deriving from James’ novel, are welcome additions.
A striking element is the presence and significance of the servant class, some of whom are closely involved in the plot. Austen herself was criticised for the narrow part of society in which she placed the majority of her principal characters. Sadly Death Comes to Pemberley allows stereotypes to dictate the portrayal of many of the servants, furnishing them with regional accents while even the relatively low-born Elizabeth speaks RP.
Much of the acting seems to have taken place in autopilot, and as a result some new incarnations of familiar characters will be easily forgotten. Although she has some great lines, Rebecca Front’s Mrs Bennet is rather more toned down than has been traditional (Alison Steadman in the BBC series or Alex Kingston in ITV’s Lost in Austen), and therefore far less fun. The show’s first episode takes itself too seriously, and the murder-mystery focus robs it of any of the sharp social satire that Austen is admired for, or even the hammed-up romance which many love adaptations for. Some simpering scenes in the final episode do provide this, however.
The central episode is strongest, for it allows the legal drama to be put on the back burner and explores more traditionally Austenian themes such as duty, social rank, marriage and love. Of course this episode lays much of the groundwork for the revelations of the finale, but credit must go to both P. D. James and the BBC for encompassing so much.
That said, the final episode becomes tedious, especially if your mind is running a couple of steps ahead of the characters’. Flashbacks which were well-used elsewhere are relied on too heavily for exposition, and as in the previous episodes they are shot using distracting lighting effects. A few of the show’s stylistic decisions are similarly infuriating, such as the habit of frequently altering the depth of focus within a frame in order to blatantly point out which character’s thoughts or feelings we should be considering.
Matthew Rhys’ Darcy never feels quite right, and is shouty rather than broody in his first appearance. Eleanor Tomlinson gives an empathy-inducing turn as Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana, whose touching story gives sceptical audiences something else to root for when the closing minutes attempt to provoke sympathy for Wickham and Lydia (Matthew Goode and Jenna Coleman).
But it is always Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin) who is the star. The various strands of Death Comes to Pemberley allow her to demonstrate compassion, ingenuity and formidable patience. When interviewed P. D. James revealed that in writing the novel she strove to replicate Austen’s characters rather than inventing her own, and in this respect Elizabeth is her greatest success. Anna Maxwell Martin’s is also the strongest performance, which should hardly come as a surprise from a woman who managed to shine even alongside Dame Judi Dench in Philomena. In Death Comes to Pemberley she does great silent work, especially in a flashback which shows the newly-married Elizabeth overhearing the cruel gossip of a group of society women who judge her on the basis of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of this adaptation will be deserved attention and further starring roles for Maxwell Martin. But Colin Firth needn’t worry about the competition.