Warning: this is going to be a very negative review. If you’re not in a mood to read what basically amounts to 1000 words of bitching about how awful this miniseries is, please don’t bother reading it. (Largely but not entirely spoiler free.)
Why am I reviewing this even after I claimed I would never? Part of me wanted to rewatch Death to Pemberly to see if it truly was as awful as I remember, and part of me just wanted to delight in Jenna Coleman’s Lydia Wickham (née Bennet) before Victoria premiered in the US.
Like the other Pride and Prejudice take off I detest, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the movie, I quite enjoyed the book), Death Comes to Pemberley features a phenomenal cast include the aforementioned Ms. Coleman, The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson, and James Norton before he was in absolutely everything produced by the BBC. And, let’s be honest here, the idea of a murder mystery combined with Pride and Prejudice sounds fun. It just does. So where did Death Comes to Pemberley go so terribly, terribly wrong?
Basically, it rolls back a huge amount of character development from Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is just as much of a miserable git (can I still use that word if I’m American?) as in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. The central idea of Austen’s concept of love is that the two people who make up a good couple make each other better, that they improve each other in subtle ways. Elizabeth softened Darcy while Darcy forced Elizabeth to confront her tendency to make snap judgements of people and stick with them. What’s more, Darcy seems to have removed all of Elizabeth’s light and happiness making her just as serious and broody as her husband. There’s an argument to be made that these personality shifts are understandable reactions to the news of a murder on their property ostensibly committed by a family member but…I don’t know. Something about that explanation feels like too much of an excuse for mischaracterization. And if that’s so it’s a truly dire statement about everyone’s ability to cope with a crisis. Elizabeth and Darcy are supposed to be happily married and, in this, they feel like a miserable couple whose affection for each other died long ago. There is a brief scene at the beginning of the miniseries that shows them more relaxed and happy and a bit at the end, but it’s just not enough, sorry.
Hands down my biggest complaint of the series is the absolute butchering of Colonel Fitzwilliam who, in Austen’s prose is nothing but a good man who is, without exception, shown to be kind to all he meets. His one fault is that he’s a bit of a gossip (his loose lips are how Lizzy finds out Darcy broke up Bingley and Jane). Here, Lizzy calls him an “arrogant and secretive man” and is totally right. He’s horrible. He doesn’t have a single redeeming characteristic. This character never would have worked in Austen’s original narrative because getting to know Colonel Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s close friend and confidante, is one of the things that initially softens Lizzy’s opinion of Darcy. If he was this terrible I’m not convinced she would have given Darcy a second glance.
The hallmark of good fan fiction (there definitely is such a thing) is that it takes characters we know and love and puts them in new situations. It doesn’t take a preexisting narrative and try to squeeze characters we already know into place. I just…the whole concept of a murder mystery set in Jane Austen’s world sounded like so much fun but this is just an excuse for all my favorite characters to go completely out of character and angst and brood.
Points for realism go to Wickham’s situation. As much as I like imagining Darcy and Lizzy’s happily ever after happily, the idea that Wickham would continue to ask for money and favors from his wealthy relatives is almost inescapable. Combined with the seduction of poor Louisa Bidwell, it paints a pretty picture of the Wickhams’ married life.
I also have to give the miniseries credit for their presentations of Lydia and Mrs. Bennet which, to me, were spot on. Lydia continues to be a ditzy flirt, and Mrs. Bennet continues to be…Mrs. Bennet. Their high pitched theatricality is a delightful respite in the sea of broodiness that is the rest of the show. I just wish there had been more of them. Although, historically, both characters have been better in smaller doses.
The romance between Henry Alveston and Georgiana is a nice counterpoint to all the sturm und drang going on elsewhere. At least for the first episode and a half. Then Darcy decides to put his thumb on the scale in favor of Colonel Fitzwilliam pressuring Georgiana to marry her cousin over a man she has true feelings for. Darcy was supposed to have learned the lesson that true love is worth risk but clearly this incarnation of Darcy hasn’t taken that to heart. The show tries to sell this as Darcy’s reaction to the scandal created by Denny’s murder but the whole thing leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. If Henry Alveston were poor that would be one thing but he is wealthy enough to see the Darcy family socially which means he must at the very least be richer than the Bennet family was and, without the entail of their fortune, they would have been quite comfortable. I’m more easily convinced of Georgiana’s willingness to sacrifice her shot at true love by marrying the Colonel. Given her previous romantic entanglement with Wickham, it makes sense that she would, with some urging, choose safety over passion.
Bits and Pieces
Mrs. Reynolds (the housekeeper) mentions knowing the proprietor of a boarding school near Highbury. Highbury is the name of the town in Emma and it does feature a boarding school which ends up furnishing Emma with her friend Harriet Smith.
one and a half deux ex machinas