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Television Review

A ‘Pemberley’ that’s less than the sum of its parts

Matthew Rhys as Fitzwilliam Darcy in “Death Comes to Pemberley.” Robert Viglasky/Origin Pictures 2013 for MASTERPIECE/Origin Pictures 2013 for MASTERPIECE

For period drama fans, PBS’s “Death Comes to Pemberley” ought to be a big event — a Corset-palooza or a Bonnet-aroo. The “Masterpiece Mystery!” miniseries is an adaptation of P.D. James’s 2011 novel, which is a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice” mashed together with one of James’s murder-mystery plots. The British cast is promising, particularly Matthew Rhys from “The Americans” and Anna Maxwell Martin from “Bleak House,” who play one of literature’s favorite couples, Lizzy Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. They’re on the main stage, while Matthew Goode from “The Good Wife” is on the side stage, as the morally inferior George Wickham.

So I am sorry to report that the two-part “Death Comes to Pemberley,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., is thoroughly and frustratingly middling. The production is awfully pretty, of course; the footage of the Darcys’ country estate, Pemberley, will give you a Downton-like rush. You will want to go to there, even if it means bedecking yourself in heavy drapery or gloves up to your shoulders. Austen wrote about the natural and unpretentious beauty of Pemberley in “Pride and Prejudice,” and the miniseries is true to her word, as the cameras sweep through the lush woods and the airy, oil-painting-filled halls.


But the story and the characters are far less captivating. Like James’s novel, the “Masterpiece” miniseries picks up with Lizzy and Darcy six years after their marriage, when a murder has been committed on the Pemberley grounds. Wickham and his best friend, Captain Denny, hurry into the woods on a foggy evening, gunshots are heard, and Wickham, that thorn in the side of both the Bennets and the Darcys, emerges alone. He’s charged with the crime, and the magistrate, with a longstanding grudge against the Darcys, proceeds to prove his case with a vengeance. The case threatens the Darcy name for a number of reasons, including the fact that Wickham is married to Lydia, Lizzy’s frivolous sister.

The solution to the murder is too predictable, but that’s not the only problem with “Death Comes to Pemberley.” The bigger problem is that you probably won’t care about the murder plot at all. A character we barely know — Captain Denny is minor in “Pride and Prejudice” — is dead, and a character we know is disreputable is being held responsible. There’s nothing emotionally engaging about the situation, especially since Wickham has already tainted the Darcy name. His harmfulness is old news. When Lizzy finally turns into a kind of Nancy Drew to figure out what happened in those woods on that fateful night, the story is revealed to be as slight as we suspected.


Maxwell Martin is a wonderfully subtle actress with a very sympathetic face (she looks an awful lot like musician Gillian Welch, by the way). She was the calm center of “Bleak House,” one of the finest moments in “Masterpiece” programming. But she’s not quite a Lizzy, even if you factor in six years of marital bliss and motherhood. Her Lizzy is committed to letting her sister-in-law, Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson) marry for love and not class and money, which is indeed Lizzy-ish, but Maxwell Martin’s sedate and sometimes-grim manner seem off base. And she doesn’t quite fit together naturally with Rhys, who is an adequate but not layered Darcy. As Wickham, Goode is oddly heroic, and unbelievable when he’s anything less, which is almost all of the time.


The tone of the miniseries is also wanting, with bit of different genres thrown together but not quite blended. There are Gothic moments in connection with the murder, and there is some “Downton Abbey” revisionism regarding the presence and personalities of the Pemberley servants. There is romance, between Georgiana and her suitors and between Darcy and Lizzy, but it’s never conjured very effectively. And there is humor and spirit, but only sporadically, and rarely successfully. You know you’re in trouble when a turn by the haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh fails to bring a smile.

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.