TV News & Reviews

PBS’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ will satisfy fans of Jane Austen and ‘Law & Order’

Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Darcy
Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Darcy Origin Pictures

Jane Austen stories promise a secret romance, a cringe-worthy relative or two, an unfair inheritance and at least one damsel staring down some unsavory marriage prospects.

Illicit sex is hinted at, through rumors of “natural children” and secret elopements. “Mansfield Park” has elements of a gothic haunted house tale. But an old-fashioned murder mystery? Not from the pen of Miss Austen.

“Death Comes to Pemberley,” mystery writer P.D. James’ 2013 sequel to “Pride and Prejudice,” supplied fans of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy with a bloodied corpse and courtroom drama alongside the suppressed English emotion of the Regency period.

Now a two-part “Masterpiece” miniseries, “Pemberley” kicks off Sunday night with gunshots, a runaway carriage and the reappearance of the dastardly George Wickham.

If your immediate reaction was “Oh, that Wickham was such a smarmy phoney baloney!” you won’t need much of a refresher course before diving into “Pemberley,” as Austen fans should.

If it has been awhile since you watched Keira Knightley (or Greer Garson, Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Garvie, et al) as our dear Lizzie, here’s what you need to remember (if you haven’t, spoilers ahead):

Lydia, Lizzie’s nasty sister, ran off and married lying scalawag George Wickham on Mr. Darcy’s dime, and they’ve been nomadic mooches ever since. Lizzie married Darcy, and her lovely sister Jane married Darcy’s rich friend Mr. Bingley, so both women get to live on lavish estates.

The Darcy property, named Pemberley, is basically a national park with a castle in the middle. And the Darcy family is protective of it: No one named Wickham is welcome.

“Death Comes to Pemberley” should please Austen fans, if not delight them, for a long list of reasons, not the least of which is an early scene in which someone finally gets to smack Lydia.

With her husband missing and feared dead, she’s hysterical and hyperventilating, so it’s a necessary slap in the face. But oh so satisfying.

(Later, Lydia will be introduced to the insufferably snooty Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in a clipped exchange that’s as funny as it is rude.)

Lydia’s mother, in town for Pemberley’s yearly ball, offers Lydia her tone-deaf version of comfort, saying, “We must remain positive and hope at least that he died in a duel.” Which was an honorable way to go in 1803.

Of course, Wickham isn’t dead. In fact, he’s soon discovered, drenched in his friend’s blood, and eventually accused of murder.

“Am I never to get that man out of my life?” Darcy demands.

He can’t just let Wickham hang, because his family’s reputation would suffer further. And it’s not at all clear that Wickham did anything wrong, so Darcy’s pesky honor demands he help his nemesis.

Everything in “Pride and Prejudice” is seen through the lens of Elizabeth and other women. It’s impossible to imagine Austen writing testosterone-filled exchanges like those that populate “Pemberley” — any confrontations between Wickham and Darcy, Darcy and Bingley, etc., would be recounted in exposition, in letters, in gossip, always by women.

Instead, “Death Comes to Pemberley” is told through groups of men. Elizabeth is literally left behind almost immediately as her husband arranges a search party, then gathers the local gentlemen, who act as purveyors of justice, driving the action.

It’s in those legal wranglings — the autopsy, inquest and trial — that “Death Comes to Pemberley” eclipses the Austen formula. But the drama succeeds best in the source material’s “novel of manners” territory, as the Darcys find themselves facing society’s disapproving scrutiny once more.

And though Elizabeth and Darcy begin their story at six years happily married with a healthy son, their old issues come creeping back, especially when it comes to Darcy’s little sister, Georgiana.

It’s a thoroughly Austen-esque dilemma — should Georgiana marry for love and disappoint her brother, or marry for connections and disappoint herself? Somehow this doesn’t sound familiar to anyone but Elizabeth.

“You did not defer to duty and rank, and yet you impose those restrictions on Georgiana,” she pleads with Darcy.

And then … well, you will not believe the guilt-tripping garbage Darcy unloads on her. And you’ll find yourself swept up in their emotional tempest again.

Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who has been playing a deep-undercover KGB agent on FX’s excellent “The Americans,” is a darker Darcy than we’ve seen before, his tightly controlled emotions bursting free in righteous anger. He makes Colin Firth’s version of Mr. Darcy seem downright collegial.

Anna Maxwell Martin, an acclaimed veteran of English theater and TV, manages to make Elizabeth’s sharp intellect sparkle even when she is terrified, angry and downtrodden.

Mrs. Darcy is not the lovely, giggling ingenue she has been portrayed as recently, and the script shows us why: Even before death arrives, the job of running Pemberley, with its countless acres, visitors and employees, is a hard one.

More so than Austen, James’ narrative also pays attention to the Darcys’ servants, especially the Bidwells, a downtrodden but fiercely loyal family living in a cottage in Pemberley’s woods. Those deep emerald thickets hold ghostly apparitions, mysterious love notes carved into tree trunks, gravestones not to be mentioned, and the evidence to free Wickham — or condemn him.

Getting to know Wickham and Lydia better during “Death Comes to Pemberley” is enlightening, when it’s not enraging. Lydia can’t stop herself from biting the hand that feeds her, gossiping to servants left and right: “Lizzie’s always been jealous of me … she only cares about money … why else would she have married Darcy?”

After his marriage, Wickham’s recklessness paid off in the British army’s Irish campaign, and he earned a bit of fame from his bravery. That doesn’t help him on trial, however.

“I wish Wickham would decide on his character and stick with it,” his father-in-law, Mr. Bennet, declares. “First we had the simpering suitor, followed quickly by rascal-at-large, then war hero, hot on its heels the ne’er-do-well who can’t hold a job. But murderer? Really?”

Despite all the “Law & Order: Regency Era” scenes, especially in the second half of “Pemberley,” the real mystery is whether Darcy and Elizabeth will be able to reach each other again through the hurt, anguish and words better left unsaid.

“Death Comes to Pemberley,” on paper and the small screen, is not as satisfying as a newly discovered Austen novel would be. But there’s a reason those delightful, easy-to-read books end as the marriages begin.

To reach Sara Smith, send email to ssmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.

WHERE TO WATCH

“Death Comes to Pemberley” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on PBS and concludes at 8 p.m. Nov. 2.

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