“We must stay positive my dear, and hope that he at least died in a duel”
The jewel in the BBC’s Christmas programming for 2013 was the adaptation of PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, her continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but in the vein of her own murder mystery style. Stripped over three days (because schedulers don’t seem to believe we can wait between episodes any more), the trio of hour-long, lusciously-filmed episodes were perfect for plumping in front of the telly for, without having to engage the brain too much, and proved an interesting exemplar of both the weaknesses and strengths of James’ enterprise.
The story begins six years after the wedding between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy as the preparations for their annual ball are rudely disrupted by the wayward arrival of Lydia’s coach and her breathless announcement of murder. An investigation into the woods around Pemberley soon reveals a body and it is Lydia’s husband the dastardly Mr Wickham who is suspected of the deed. Thus follows a crime procedural (of sorts) as Lizzie and Darcy try to get to the bottom of who exactly killed the man, whilst negotiating their tangled history of their families and trying to avoid social shame.
As a mystery, it was surprisingly disappointing. James had to rely on Lizzie being a bit Nancy Drew in place of anyone really investigating what was going on, and there was a distinct lack of suspense about the way the plot unfolded, no real fear that any death sentence might actually be carried out. And the way that events were eventually revealed lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, it all seemed rather incidental to be honest as the victim(s) and the accused were all at least one remove from the original characters, there was never quite the sense of investment needed to make us care.
The show was better at showing the people we knew and loved six years on, Lizzie and Darcy – now parents – still struggling a little to maintain the special connection between them, especially in face of the crises facing those around them. But in Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys’ performances, there was a real sense of their emotional intelligence, the realisation that their relationship is something that will always have to be worked at. Consequently, there wasn’t quite as much palpable chemistry as one might have liked, the gratuitous sex scene feeling a bit awkward, but they made for a fascinating couple.
Throw in excellent work from Matthew Goode and Jenna Coleman as the flight Wickhams, Rebecca Front and James Fleet as a lovingly familiar Mr and Mrs Bennet, and Joanna Scanlan as a harrumphing housekeeper, and it was a luxurious treat that bore its stately treatment well. An uncharacteristically spiky Mariah Gale, a haughty (now Dame) Penelope Keith and an ever-handsome James Norton also helped, as did the sumptuous production values helmed by Daniel Percival. Perfectly timed for the post-Christmas lull, it did the job.