What would happen if Jane Austen’s characters in “Pride and Prejudice” found themselves swept up in a murder mystery? That, in a nutshell, is the premise of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” a two-part adaptation of P.D. James’ best-selling novel premiering Sunday, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 on PBS’ “Masterpiece” (check local listings).
Adapted for television by Juliette Towhidi, James’ fiendishly clever sequel takes place six years after the events of Austen’s classic. Elizabeth and Darcy (Anna Maxwell Martin, “The Bletchley Circle,” and Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”) are now, for the most part, happily married, the parents of a rambunctious little boy.
As the story opens, the Darcys are planning a ball at Pemberley, his palatial family estate. Prominent by their absence on the guest list are Elizabeth’s headstrong and impetuous baby sister, Lydia (Jenna Coleman (“Doctor Who”), and her dastardly husband, George Wickham (Matthew Goode, “The Good Wife”), whom Austen fans will remember married Lydia and avoided a Bennet family scandal only after Darcy bribed him to do so.
Needless to say, family tensions have run high since then between the two couples, but Lydia refuses to accept this snub. Eventually, Wickham decides they will simply crash the party and dare Elizabeth to turn away her sister. They set off by coach, accompanied by Wickham’s friend, Capt. Denny (Tom Canton), but … well, suffice it to say, the speeding coach eventually arrives at Pemberley bearing only an hysterical Lydia.
A quick search of the surrounding woods turns up a shocking discovery and, in a matter of hours, a main character stands accused of murder. James peppers her story with covert revenge plots, infants of dubious paternity and even a ghost before events culminate in a nail-biting trial. Look past all the whodunit conventions, though, and the “death” in the story’s title may refer less to a presumed homicide and more to the perilous condition of the Darcys’ relationship.
“I sort of felt that Elizabeth was bound up, restricted, by her environment at Pemberley,” Martin tells Zap2it. “That’s an important part of what we explore here. This is not just a murder mystery. It’s also about the breakdown of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage. They’re from two different worlds and they married despite that. This story explores what happens when that comes back to haunt them.”
The actress says she especially loved filming a moment of comic relief with Penelope Keith (“To the Manor Born”), playing Darcy’s imperious aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
“There isn’t really that much of the ‘true’ Elizabeth that we know and love from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in this story, because the murder plot sort of takes over,” Martin says. “So that is one of the very few scenes where you get to see who she is. Elizabeth is really quite naughty and she loves winding people up. I was really happy to be able to show that.”