Set a few years after the events of Pride & Prejudice, Lizzie (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Darcy (Matthew Rhys) are happily married and residing at the Darcy family pile, Pemberley. The house is in the process of getting ready for a ball, with the majority of the Bennets on their way to attend, except of course, Lydia (Jenna Coleman), married to the wicked George Wickham (Matthew Goode) and therefore uninvited. Not to be outdone, the Wickhams set off for the ball with their friend Captain Denny (Tom Canton) but a fight along the way and a dastardly murder in the woods finds Wickham arrested and Lizzie and Darcy trying to solve the crime.
The first episode got off to a slow start, but it had so many pieces to put into play that it was a necessary beginning. Once they were all in place, the tension ramped up steadily to the series' slightly heartstopping conclusion. Fortunately those like me who had never managed to finish Austen's novel, an extensive prior knowledge was not required as flashbacks and other references in the dialogue give you enough information to provide a good background to these events. Usually exposition scenes tend to detract from the main event, but here they provided a nice link between the two works, as well as highlighting some of our characters' anxieties, particularly Lizzie's.
As with any good murder mystery, there were a few red herrings to be fished out amongst the other clues but what resonated most was the way in which the murder acted as a catalyst for an analysis on relationships, rather than simply driving the plot towards to its conclusion. Both the Darcys and the Wickhams achieved their supposed happily-ever-afters (one genuine, one as the result of some fast monetary intervention), but the murder pries open cracks in each relationship. For the Darcys, it comes back to the idea of status and Lizzie's worry that Darcy regrets their marriage because he married for love not money. With Lydia, it is trying desperately to keep up the charade that she and Wickham are happy, whilst possessing the knowledge that he's been unfaithful.
There is also a typical marriage plot buried in one of the developing narratives alongside the main one, that of Georgiana Darcy's desire to marry the lawyer Alveston (James Norton) whilst her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward) vies for her hand. Both relationships are disrupted as a result of the murder with Darcy forcing Georgiana into an engagement with her cousin before he realises that his cousin is just trying to keep his reputation untainted. It lends a fascinating element to what could have been just a straight murder mystery and one that is enhanced by PD James' decision to use these existing characters; we're offered a chance to see what hand life has dealt them and how in turn they respond to it.
It helped that the performances were all excellent with Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin bringing a lovely chemistry to one of literature's most famous couples. Though they remain the stoic centre at the heart of the chaos, they are never dull, always observing with a quick intelligence and Martin gets in some great one liners with Lizzie's trademark wit. Matthew Goode is another standout, carving a fine niche for himself in the charming reprobate category after this year's Stoker, whose Wickham may be all kinds of awful, but has enough charm and vulnerability about him that you keep rooting for him throughout.
Trevor Eve made for a suitably gruff investigator, one whose motives remained in doubt throughout but ultimately came good in the end. Initially, Jenna Coleman and Rebecca Front hold up much of the comedic end in the first half of the series as Lydia and Mrs Bennet, but Lydia in particular far from one-dimensional. In just one scene she is transformed from a selfish, inconsiderate irritant to a put-upon wife determined not to allow her marriage to fall apart. It's a testament to Coleman's performance that this seen registered so strongly.
Finally, the most interesting element was the way in which Pemberley became a character in itself. Using the beautiful grounds of Chatsworth in Derbyshire (as well as interiors at Castle Howard and Harewood House), the estate itself became a crucial part of the narrative, not only as its location, but also because of the regard in which it is held by the characters. Whilst the murder itself was motivated more by individual concerns, the reason behind it, mainly the existence of baby George, was founded on Wickham's love of Pemberley and the memories he had of it. Darcy's attempts to rein in the scandal are to save its name as is Georgiana's decision to marry her cousin despite not really caring for him.
Much more than just a simple murder-at-a-country-house tale, Death Comes to Pemberley was a beautiful exercise in how to create a compelling story of family and scandal, with fantastic performances and a real dedication to bringing Austen's characters back to life. It may have just inspired me to give Pride & Prejudice another go.
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