Saturday, October 25, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley: the Darcys, the Wickhams, and a Corpse

Just loosening up a little represented quite a character development arc for Mr. Darcy, whereas Wickham remained just a cad. Still, he would not seem to be the sort of chap to commit murder, but the circumstantial evidence says otherwise. Ironically, Wickham’s only hope to avoid the gallows lies with the Darcys who loathe him so well in Death Comes to Pemberley (promo here), P.D. James’ whodunit sequel to Pride and Prejudice, which airs the next two Sundays as part of the current season of PBS’s Masterpiece.

After six years, the Darcys are still reasonably happily married. Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) is a kind and understanding mistress of Pemberley, counterbalancing her sometimes gruff husband. Her sister Lydia is not to be received at Pemberley, especially not with her mercenary husband, George Wickham. However, they are determined to crash the Darcys’ formal ball, in the company of Wickham’s former army buddy, Captain Martin Denny.

Unfortunately, there will be no dancing for anyone. During the coach ride to Pemberley, Wickham and Denny have a nasty row that spills over into the ominous woods. Shots are fired, with Wickham subsequently discovered with the body, babbling “it’s all my fault.” To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Darcy must hand over the investigation to Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, an old family rival. Hardcastle has no sympathy for uppity commoners like Wickham. Darcy does not suffer them gladly either, but he is tied to Wickham by marriage. Should Wickham’s sensational motives for murder be exposed, it would shame the family and possibly even jeopardize the continued health of Pemberley.

Frankly, there are equal parts Downton Abbey and Nick & Nora Charles in DCTP, which makes sense considering how much PBS viewers love drama based on estate management and scandal suppression. Penelope Keith even parachutes in for a scene as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, very much in the tradition of Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess.

Neither Darcy really sets out to crack the case either, they just respond as events develop. If not the most intricately plotted Brit mystery, DCTP is still quite winning thanks to the perfect casting and elegant chemistry of its Darcys. Matthew Rhys plays Mr. Darcy with a mercurial temper and sly wit that are great fun to watch, while Anna Maxwell Martin’s Elizabeth Darcy is sensitive but down to earth in a manner that should pass muster with Austen-philes. They are terrific together, elevating the romance and strained marriage melodrama well above our expectations.

Matthew Goode’s rakish shtick certainly suits Wickham and Jenna Colman is convincingly annoying as Lydia Wickham, but the X-factor in the large supporting cast is unquestionably Trevor Eve, who turns a few surprises and rather humanizes the curmudgeonly Hardcastle over the course of DCTP. In contrast, even by British standards, Eleanor Tomlinson and James Norton are tragically vanilla as Darcy’s slightly scandal-tinged sister Georgiana and her progressive would be suitor, respectively.

Veteran Brit TV director Daniel Percival frames some picturesque scenes and the period production values are all up to BBC/PBS Masterpiece code. It is also a veritable cavalcade of familiar British mystery veterans, such as Rhys (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Scapegoat), Martin (The Bletchley Circle), Goode (Dancing on the Edge), Eve (In the Heat of the Sun), and Rebecca Front (Chief Supt. Innocent in Lewis), which should further please fans. A pretty sturdy costume drama with a corpse, Death Comes to Pemberley should satisfy both the regular mystery viewers and the Austen cos-players when it airs tomorrow night (10/26) and next Sunday (11/2) on most PBS outlets nationwide.