And now for DEATH IN PEMBERLEY, the television miniseries that we will in the fall on PBS MASTERPIECE MYSTERY!
Death Comes to Pemberley (BBC) Review Date: 14th February 2014 Reviewed By: Marina Cano-Lopez, Edinburgh Napier University/University of St Andrews
This is the successful adaptation of a not so successful novel. The television series Death Comes to Pemberley is closely based on P.D. James’s novel (published in 2011), which narrates events six years after the closing of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813): Captain Denny, a minor character in the original novel, is mysteriously murdered in the woods of Pemberley, and Wickham is charged with the crime. The main plot concerns the murder investigation and subsequent trial of Austen’s villain. Instances in which a screen adaptation visibly surpasses its source are scarce – I would cite Sharon Maguire’s adaptation of Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) as another example, one that is quite a propos in its Austenian connection. Like Maguire’s dramatization, Daniel Percival’s brings the novel to life by supplying the momentum that is missing from the text. One of the problems of P.D. James’s novel is the abuse of flashbacks, which are intended to remind the reader (especially the non-Janeite) of events in Pride and Prejudice. The result is a slow-moving narrative, where the plot advances only with difficulty, a problem that Percival solves by shortening and selecting some flashbacks only.
Novel and television series share an apparent fidelity to Austen’s times and works. The novel imitates Austen’s style and diction, including her irony and grammatical structures. The TV series attempts to reproduce the Regency country house visually: the kitchen, the victuals for the ball (white soup, wild goose, Prince of Wales biscuits), the furniture (period tables, sofas, clocks, paintings), and so on. This is Jane Austen and yet not Jane Austen: P.D. James and Daniel Percival transform Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s comedy par excellence, into a thriller with little room for laughter. Death Comes to Pemberley, unlike Austen’s novel, is full of blood, corpses and superstition – for instance, we see the dead bodies of Denny and Mrs. Yonge. The adaptation also conveys a sense of gothic horror through the forest. The long, low-angle shots (where the trees are filmed upward) contribute to this sense of awe by depicting the forest as a haunted place where murders take place and ghosts wander at ease.
The series is successful at creating this sense of place, and mostly (though not always) in its casting. Writing a sequel to Austen’s best-loved novel is a risky enterprise, but taking this sequel to the screen can be even more so: these are highly inhabited characters, and comparisons with earlier adaptations become unavoidable. In my case (and I suppose in that of many viewers), the inescapable point of comparison was Simon Langton’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC in 1995. The characterisation of Anna Maxwell and (especially) Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Darcy echoes that of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth – Rhys’s hairstyle, for instance, is clearly reminiscent of Firth’s, and indeed most post-1995 adaptations recall the Firthian Darcy. The casting of Maxwell and Rhys, with their track record in literary dramatisations and biopics, adds an extra layer of meaning to Death Comes to Pemberley. Maxwell interpreted the role of Cassandra Austen (Austen’s sister) in Becoming Jane (2007), and Esther Summerson in Bleak House (2005); Rhys was John Jasper in the recent completion and adaptation of Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012). This baggage that actors bring to a film or television adaptation, perhaps not always intentionally, is what I have examined elsewhere as “filmic intertextuality,”1 a practice that certainly complicates our “reading” of Percival’s film by adding extra layers of meaning for the devoted audience.
If Maxwell and Rhys – as Elizabeth and Darcy – partly recall Ehle and Firth, what is new or different? The main problem here lies with Maxwell’s Elizabeth, who for me is not on a par with Ehle’s. Elizabeth Darcy, as performed by Maxwell, lacks the vitality and the mischievous smile that distinguished Ehle’s character, and also Austen’s. The BBC Pride and Prejudice frequently dwells on Ehle’s eyes, thereby emphasising her naughtiness and also the game of gazes in which the lovers engage. But the new Elizabeth is the mature mistress of Pemberley, not the lively wit of Longbourn. This accusation may be unfair: such, one could argue, is the logical development after six years as mistress of Pemberley, or the consequence of dressing Austen in the garments of crime fiction. But for me it unavoidably came as a disappointment. Another disappointment is the lack of chemistry between Maxwell and Rhys, which is especially noticeable when contrasted with the rapport between Ehle and Firth. Despite a similar physique, Rhys’s Darcy is very different from Firth’s. This is Darcy the New Man: he is a more sensitive character, who asks Georgiana to forgive him with tears in his eyes (he had pressed her to accept Colonel Fitzwilliam’s hand). Rhys’s Darcy is also an affectionate father, who frequently plays with his son and tries to divert his attention on the morning of the murder.
I cannot finish this review without applauding what for me is a definite improvement: the Wickhams. Played by Jenna Coleman, Lydia Wickham is more superficial, flirtatious and vain than ever – though we also have a brief insight into her character by the end of the series. But Matthew Goode’s George Wickham carries the day: his physique makes him more suitable for this role of Don Juan than some earlier actors (such as Adrian Lukis, BBC 1995). Most importantly, his performance during the trial is praiseworthy: on receiving his death sentence for Denny’s murder, this Wickham struggles for composure; as the verdict is being passed, we are offered a close-up of his face, where muscular tension becomes palpable, showing his inner struggle between despair and self-control.
The TV series Death Comes to Pemberley has been the excellent culmination of a year of Austenian celebrations. It was broadcast in December 2013, the year that marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. This is one of the many adaptations, sequels, rewritings and continuations of Austen’s novels that have been filling our shelves, cinemas and television channels for, at least, the last decades. It was also one of the manifold ways Pride and Prejudice was celebrated last year – others include the launch of Harper Collins’s new modernisation of the six novels and Paula Byrne’s new Austen biography. Yet, as at the time of writing, we are awaiting the next three Austen anniversaries: Mansfield Park (2014), Emma (2016), and Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (2018). There may still be further murders on the agenda, but Austen is certainly still very much alive.
Death Comes to Pemberley was first broadcast on BBC One in December 2013.