I’m finally getting around to reviewing this TV miniseries, which is long overdue, given the fact that I liked it enough I have watched it REPEATEDLY. If you’re in the mood for some Jane Austen and have exhausted all the currently-out-there adaptations, I really recommend giving this one a whirl!
In a nutshell, this mini-series is an adaptation of a 2011 book by P.D. James that is a combination murder mystery/Jane Austen sequel. There’s a whole industry of books out there that attempt to write sequels to Austen novels. Usually it’s “the later story of Elizabeth and Darcy” or “Margaret Dashwood grows up and falls in love.” I’ve read a few, and generally I dislike them, because they tend to influence my vision of the original novels. Now, maybe it’s because I haven’t read the book of Death Comes to Pemberley but only watched the TV series, but I don’t feel that way about this show. I think it’s because, aside from the murder mystery, I feel like the characters act in very plausible ways for their characters as written by Jane Austen (okay, except Colonel Fitzwilliam). And, in fact, I feel like one of the central issues that comes up between Darcy and Elizabeth in this show — that Darcy will come to regret marrying Elizabeth due to her annoying relations — IS actually something that would come up between the two.
Casting Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley
Now, a few weeks ago I posted an image from this film to our Facebook feed, and there were numerous comments along the lines of “I didn’t like the actress cast as Elizabeth.” So I’m going to address that issue first.
In the original novel by Jane Austen, Elizabeth is thus described:
By Bingley: “But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say, very agreeable.”
By Darcy: “Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”
By the narrator: “She had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.” She has “dark eyes.” She follows Jane “in birth and beauty.”
By her mother: she “is not half so handsome as Jane [her sister, the acknowledged beauty of the family].”
By Colonel Fitzwilliam: “Mrs. Collins’s pretty friend had moreover caught his fancy very much.”
Thus, she is pretty but, moreover, intelligent, witty, and spirited.
Her portrayal in film/TV adaptations varies from pretty to stunning, but let’s compare her to Jane in order to have some comparison — but with no disrespect intended. You’ll see that they are all very lovely actresses!
So now, we come to Anna Maxwell Martin, an incredibly talented actress who has pretty much stunned me in everything she’s been in. She has a very chameleon look. She’s not conventionally “beautiful,” but she does have a sweet face, and she can really range from look to look:
So now we come to her in Death Comes to Pemberley:
So. Is she a stunner? Nope. Is she attractive? Yes, most especially for — and here this echoes Jane Austen’s writing of her character — her intelligence. Okay, maybe she’s less witty in this version, but there HAS been a murder!
Oh god, I can’t believe I just wrote all of this comparing the relative attractiveness of various actresses. I feel like the world’s biggest anti-feminist and creator of eating disorders.
But you know, that thought rolls into all of this. So what if she’s not Your Female Ideal? SHE’S A REALLY TALENTED ACTRESS and SHE GIVES A REALLY GREAT PERFORMANCE IN THIS.
As a fellow member of the “If I put lipstick on I can be attractive, but without it I’m relatively plain, and you know what, I don’t really care” club, let’s just let Elizabeth be smart and not worry about whether she’s pretty ENOUGH. Also, I would like to go on the record as saying that Anna Maxwell Martin’s PERFORMANCE is what makes this show for me.
The Rest of the Death Comes to Pemberley Cast
There’s some other cast choices that are important:
Death Comes to Pemberley‘s Story/Script
So the general through-put of the story is that there’s been a murder, but I don’t want to give any of it away, and besides, what’s most interesting is watching the characters be themselves as various events go past.
Massive props must be given to the writing for Mrs. Bennet. She dithers and twitters with the best of them. There’s a murder going on, and people’s lives may be ruined, and everything hangs in the balance? Mrs. Bennet makes it all about her, having nervous fits and cataloging her symptoms for the doctor.
Lydia (played by Jenna Coleman of Doctor Who) is great. She makes sure to milk the situation for all its worth, annoys the hell out of Darcy, and even shows a rare flash of intelligence late in the show.
And, of course, the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. All seems fine, but this crisis causes all of her crazy family to turn up, and both of them have to re-remember what they saw in each other originally.
Death Comes to Pemberley Costumes
So let’s talk costumes! I’m with Trystan — Regency generally bores me. It’s all nightgowns and unflattering high waists and bonnets and primness. And true to form, things like Elizabeth’s green gown (above) were snoozy, although not offensively so. But there were some things to discuss:
Georgiana got most of the “pretty” dresses as befits the ingenue:
Lydia actually had some quite smashing color combinations:
There were some flashback scenes to Darcy and Elizabeth getting together, and I really liked that (A) you could tell they were wearing different styles than the “present day” scenes, and (B) the costume designer clearly did their homework, putting the ladies in chemise gowns with fuller 1790s hair:
Finally, there’s a mystery character who gets some VERY snappy stripes, a really nice bonnet, and a color palette that Trystan is going to love:
Now, what didn’t I like? Two things:
Elizabeth wears this spencer, which is clearly cut high in back in a 1790s style, but which totally doesn’t mesh with the 1800s waistline of her dress:
Even worse, Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up (with someone in tow, not sure who), and both are wearing 1780s dresses. Okay people, yes, “the older people wear out of date styles.” Not THAT out of date! MAYBE 1790s, at most?
Even worse, Lady Catherine’s dress A) DOESN’T FIT, and B) is worn open in some kind of bad attempt at a mock “zone front” (a modern term used to describe dresses that meet at the neckline, then slope away in an upside-down V shape towards the waist). I mean, they didn’t even turn the waist points up. LADY CATHERINE CAN AFFORD A DRESS THAT FITS. TRUST ME. BITCH IS LOADED.
But Don’t Forget!
Death Comes to Pemberley features steamy Elizabeth/Darcy make-up sex!