Death Comes to Pemberley – Episode 1

Lina Talbot

pemberley 300x168 Death Comes to Pemberley – Episode 1Spoiler alert: this review assumes you have already watched the first episode of this three-part series.

What delectation the BBC has prepared for us this Christmas: Anna Maxwell Martin, Matthew Rhys and Matthew Goode performing in this homage to Pride & Prejudice, written by PD James as a pastiche Jane Austen crime novel. The screen adaptation is the work of Juliette Towhidi, who co-wrote Calendar Girls.

This first episode starts with hints of romance: two suitors arriving to try their luck with Darcy’s young sister Georgiana at the Darcys’ stately home, a.k.a. Chatsworth House, while preparations for a ball – as always in Austen – are under way. Georgiana seems to be playing both of them along, which should lead to some customary intrigue, but this story thread is cut across by the storming arrival of Lydia (the saucy Jenna Coleman) in a runaway carriage.

Dramatic action ensues, with reports of gun shots and a search party combing the woods… before the mud and blood bespattered Wickham emerges dragging the corpse of his friend Captain Denny (Tom Canton). Back at the house the doctor administers “calming draughts” to the overwrought female guests as well as to Wickham, who is so completely knocked out that the possibility of his being the murderer is discussed as he lies three foot away on the bed.

Matthew Rhys gave an inspiring performance as an undercover KGB agent in The Americans, but has here a less thankful task as the rather unexciting Darcy. What he actually does in the house is unclear, except for owning it, of course. Now happily married with child to Elizabeth for six years, there is little left of the arrogant man with a caustic turn of phrase we learned to warm to in the original novel. Both he and Elizabeth are sorely lacking their old sharpness and wit.

Instead, they are given a crime to solve. Wickham’s arrival discomfits them both on account of their past history, but Darcy will clearly become conflicted as perhaps the only support Wickham can count on, based on spending their childhoods together. At that time they were two together against the tyranny of the Hardcastles, who caused a young lad to hang for a first poaching offence. Evil is relative…

When Matthew Goode first comes onto the screen with his look of contempt, it’s as though a movie star has arrived, with emotional depth and towering personality. Of course he does have the role of bad boy and wronged man George Wickham to inhabit  – rather than overseeing the dining arrangements or taking one’s young son out of everyone else’s hair. And he is damnably good-looking, so must be suspected of all possible evil until proven otherwise.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Elizabeth as a simply lovely person, with an intelligence to respect, and love and tolerance for her husband, the ways of the world and the efforts of her extensive servant household. A pity she’s not the one with her heart strings being pulled, since Georgiana (The White Queen’s Eleanor Tomlinson) does not leave much of an impression other than that of being an obedient and retiring young woman blessed with a fine profile.

I’m not yet feeling the passion of Austen, nor her intrigue nor comedy of manners – except for one instance involving the housekeeper Mrs Reynolds, a nicely cast Joanna Scanlon. She refuses to respond to the directions of magistrate Hardcastle – a role for which Trevor Eve may not be thought nasty enough.  As she explains to Elizabeth later: “It’s just that the Hardcastles are not much liked at Pemberley.” The elephantine memories of serving staff…

Regarding the brutal crime, it’s hard to imagine Wickham doing something so crude. The other main suspect is Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), clearly up to something in the woods, and proudly holding strange notions such as “it’s proper that love should come after marriage.” Ah yes, does he need an extra inheritance to prop up that castle of his?

The Bidwells are also an avenue to explore, with the unexplained sickness of young Will, the head coachman’s son (Lewis Rainer). And for completeness, the woods harbour Mrs Reilly’s ghost, and the mad woman who hisses at Elizabeth.

James Fleet and Rebecca Front have made a good start as the well-loved and oft portrayed Mr and Mrs Bennet, the one talking rubbish, and the other trying to avoid listening to it. When Mr Bennet pleads to go with the search party, rather than remain with his wife, and suggests that she should be administered the first “calming draft” – it’s a scene to savour.

Already several questions need answers: what Wickham did or must do to earn his wad of money, and what causes him to fall out with Captain Denny in the carriage. Why does Wickham drink himself stupid, and what is on the note he tried to burn? Of course Denny’s fate may be less related to Wickham, and more to his uniform and fighting the French in Ireland.

Overall, the impression is that of a story being told in limbo, peopled with period characters and customs but in general acting and sounding remarkably modern. Unlike Ripper Street, for example, which is at pains to render the Victorian atmosphere. Pride and Prejudice was published 200 years ago and so should appear twice as quaint, if quaintness can be quantified. This does not necessarily detract from the crime story, but I miss the arch comments that normally pepper the dialogue of Austen’s characters. Elizabeth herself is altogether too nice – and I don’t believe the marriage is entirely to blame.

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