Jane Austen’s work has seen many revivals, revisions, adaptations, and spin-offs. Her oeuvre has become a cottage industry in itself – romantic novels, queer fiction, graphic novels, even horror stories have found their way into Austen lore. Most of the work is just high-end fan fiction, but P.D. James’ 2011 thriller Death Comes to Pemberley was a notable exception. A finely crafted novel that uses Austen’s flawless Pride and Prejudice as a backstory, Death Comes to Pemberley unsurprisingly makes for an excellent TV drama, as well. Austen purists may scoff and be wary at the idea of a murder mystery starring Elizabeth Bennet, but viewers should give this series a try, as it delivers an immensely enjoyable and thrilling story.
The plot takes place six years after Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet (Anna Maxwell Martin) is married to Mr. Darcy (Matthew Rhys), and is Lady of Pemberley. The estate is in a hubbub because a grand ball is taking place and Elizabeth is in charge. Unbeknownst to her, estranged sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman) is en route to Pemberley, planning to crash the ball with her rascal of a husband, Wickham (Matthew Goode). Along with the Wickhams, is Captain Denny (Tom Canton), who is rowing with Wickham. Their argument reaches a feverish peak in the woods of Pemberley, and Denny alights from the carriage and dashes off into the forest, with Wickham close at his heels. Lydia is left alone in the carriage, only to hear two gun shots. Screaming, she reaches Pemberely and reports what she heard, and Darcy sends out a search party, only to discover a distraught Wickham dragging Denny’s body, blaming himself for his friend’s death.
What then unfurls is an intriguing drama that has Darcy and Elizabeth try to unravel what happened on their grounds. As with Austen’s original work, Death Comes to Pemberley also looks at class and societal hierarchies, and class stratification plays a huge part in the conflict. Those who are familiar with Pride and Prejudice will remember that Wickham has been a major source of pain and embarrassment for Darcy – the two were raised as brothers, though Wickham squandered his inherited wealth and opportunities, only to become a lech. After a failed attempt at seducing Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), Wickham was married off to Lydia to save the younger Bennet’s reputation after a night of sin. Because Darcy is so disgusted with Wickham, he resents having to get involved in such a tawdry affair as a murder. He begins to make noise about class differences, urging that Georgiana marry in her class – this, of course, hurts Elizabeth, who is of a much lower social class than her husband. Because Wickham is Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, he’s forever tied to the Darcys and to Pemberley, and she’s worried that her husband will regret their marriage.
It’s not necessary to be familiar with Pride and Prejudice to enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley. There are brief flashbacks to actions that took place during the book – and these passages give context to some of the characters and their relationships, without handcuffing the film to the book (or the popular A&E miniseries with Colin Firth). In fact, it’s best to view Death Comes to Pemberley as a separate work of art. And as Elizabeth Bennet, Anna Maxwell Martin does a tremendous job. Her interpretation is different than the famed works of Jennifer Ehle, Greer Garson, or Kiera Knightly. Martin’s Elizabeth is just as funny and witty, but there’s also a pervasive sadness and melancholy – her Elizabeth is older and wiser, and there are hints that the Darcy marriage, while a happy one, isn’t free from blemishes as one would expect once Pride and Prejudice ends. As Darcy, Matthew Rhys has the unenviable task of toiling in the shadow of Colin Firth – and no, not once does Mr. Darcy emerge from a lagoon soaking wet. But Rhys more than delivers in portraying a conflicted Darcy, who like Elizabeth, has changed in the ensuing years. Other characters from the novel appear such as Jane (Alexandra Moen), Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), and Mrs. Reynolds (Joanna Scanlan). Some favorites also return – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet visit the Darcys, and true to Austen’s work, Mrs. Bennett is as vexing, superficial, and ridiculous as always, while Mr. Bennet is as sarcastic and useless. Both Rebecca Front and James Fleet are great in the roles and provide the series with some much-needed comic relief. And as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, legendary comedienne Penelope Keith steals her scenes in a very funny cameo.
In the wrong hands, Death Comes to Pemberley could have been gimmicky and ridiculous. Having Darcy and Elizabeth cast as a Nick and Nora or a Tommy and Tuppence would’ve been awful. Instead, when Elizabeth and Darcy engage in amateur sleuthing, it’s done with a heavy heart, and with a grave knowledge that they aren’t engaging in some fun, escapist mystery. Because script writer Juliette Towhidi is unflinching in detailing the harsh realities of Georgian England, Death Comes to Pemberley remains urgent and vital, steering away from the bubbly interpretations that mark most of the adaptations of Austen’s work. The early 19th century was grueling for a lot of people in England, particularly the poor – there are scenes that document the various indignities and injustices that befall on the less fortunate, including bouts of tuberculosis, stigmatizing out-of-wedlock births, kangaroo courts, even the execution of children. With Death Comes to Pemberely, Austen’s world is widened, to include these devastating elements, as well. It may not be as fun as some other Pride and Prejudice-inspired works, but it’s still an excellent and worthy addition to the Austen-inspired canon.