The whole notion of one author picking up where a predecessor left off feels at least a little inauthentic, if not a blatant and usually second-rate ripoff. But there have been exceptions over the years, cases where another author has created a new work that both honors the original and stands tall in its own right.
That’s the case with P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley,” which, as unlikely as it may seem, is both a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and a compelling murder mystery. Now Juliette Towhidi and “Masterpiece Mystery” add yet another incarnation with a stunning two-part adaptation of “Pemberley” premiering Sunday on PBS.
James and Towhidi pick the story up six years after the period covered in Austen’s novel. Now married, Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin, “Bleak House”) and Darcy (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”) have a young son and live in the sprawling Darcy mansion with hordes of servants who are busy preparing for the annual ball.
Elizabeth’s parents (Rebecca Front and James Fleet) will attend, as will Darcy’s sister, Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson, “Jack the Giant Slayer”), but Elizabeth’s flighty sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman, “Doctor Who”) and her ne’er-do-well husband, Wickham (Matthew Goode, “The Good Wife”), have been omitted from the guest list. Nonetheless, the two plan on crashing the party and are on their way to the estate with Wickham’s friend Captain Denny (Tom Canton, title role in Abbey Theatre’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) when a dispute arises, Denny bolts from the carriage into the woods, and Wickham follows him.
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Two shots ring out in the forest. A few moments later, Wickham is found with the body of his friend.
So who, pray tell, dunnit?
Since this is an adaptation of P.D. James, you would expect the mystery to be brilliantly conceived, and it is. Wickham is the obvious suspect not only because he’s found with the body, but because he is the irredeemable cad who first charmed Elizabeth in Austen’s novel and then ran off with her younger sister. But Wickham is too obvious to be guilty, or at least, that’s what we think when he’s arrested.
Of even greater interest is how “Pemberley” celebrates the richness of Austen’s characters and so perfectly imagines how Elizabeth and Darcy, in particular, would have evolved in six years. The strain of the murder, of Wickham’s re-entry into their lives and of Darcy having longtime family enemy Sir Selwyn Hardcastle (Trevor Eve, “David Copperfield”) investigate the murder disrupts the household. As Elizabeth and Darcy find themselves at odds, we’re returned to the time of their first meeting, in a way. But what’s different is that both of them are not only in love, but have grown individually within the marriage. Elizabeth is even more self-assured now, to the point where her forthrightness appears almost a threat to Darcy and he reacts by pushing her away.
The adaptation is superb as it explores the Austen-James characterization, but Towhidi is ably abetted by Daniel Percival’s exquisite character-focused direction and, of course, first-rate performances from the entire cast. Maxwell Martin remains at the top of her game, once again reaffirming her ability to create a complex character like Elizabeth Bennet Darcy with an enviable attention to fine detail. Rhys has perhaps a greater challenge, since Darcy is so detached in the middle of the localized storm. But in the end, he not only acquits himself well but provides the audience with the emotional denouement we’ve craved.