Masterpiece’s Death Comes to Pemberley

My mom DVRd this adaptation of P.D. James’ novel, and we both eagerly anticipated watching (and analyzing) it together. Starring Matthew Ehys (Darcy), Anna Maxwell-Martin (Elizabeth), and Matthew Goode (Wickham), this adaptation made me think a lot about the difference between reading words and seeing pictures (I was already on heightened alert after having recently watched Words and Pictures, an intriguing film that explores the poignancy of the written word vs the painted image). There are many moments here that viewers just feel, not based on words but on shared looks or even just proximity.

Seeing the story reminds us more perhaps than the words how different life was for people in this time. For one thing, as my mom mentioned, “it’s so dark there!” Without electric light, even wealthy families like the Darcys are operating in darkness much of the time, and outside, it’s pretty much just the moon as the source of light, which makes nighttime excursions and investigations rather tricky.

We begin with servants (subtitles would have been really helpful), who we hear scream long before we see anything remotely scary, and even then we don’t see what scared the girls (a ghost), just a mysterious tomb, and certainly not a bloody body (in case you’re sensitive to such things). The tomb, of course, turns out to be of great import in the death coming to Pemberley, but no one knows that yet.

The next scene is delightfully light, as young Master Fitzwilliam is running through the house into the arms of Elizabeth. Mrs. Reynolds is busily helping Lizzy prepare for a ball. Elizabeth prepares the butler to serve the best brandy slowly so the ladies can walk to their carriages since there are no more available rooms for people to stay overnight. Darcy is yelling the first time we see him, which he says is normal before a ball. There is palpable chemistry between them, and his yells are soon conquered by his own smiles as he beholds his wife. Georgiana wants the kind of liveliness in marriage that her brother and Elizabeth have.

We meet Bidwell, whom Darcy calls “a good man” and who leaves his problems at home to polish the silver at Pemberley. His son Will has good days and bad. He is borrowing books from Elizabeth, so we know he is intelligent and values her recommendations. When Elizabeth leaves the Bidwell cottage, she sees a woman in purple in the woods, and Elizabeth calls out to her. The woman runs from Elizabeth only to return for her purple bonnet and then to hiss at Elizabeth like a deranged creature. Though Elizabeth understands that this woman is not Mrs. Riley’s ghost, it is important that we know the Riley story to understand just how passionate Darcy is about keeping Wickham’s neck out of the noose, no matter how much he despises him. When Elizabeth and Jane visit the cottage after a death occurs, Lizzy sees what’s really happening with Louisa Bidwell’s baby. Lizzy has a lot of suspicions now; why does Will pretend to be asleep when she visits? And who is Louisa’s baby’s father?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In addition to the usual cast of characters we would expect in such an adaptation (though we never see Bingley and never even hear about Mary or Kitty or the Collinses), we meet Henry Alveston, a lawyer. He and Georgiana greet each other warmly, Georgiana slipping and calling him “Henry” and then correcting herself. During a social engagement, Georgiana asks Alveston to accompany her with her music, and he, adorably, as she once did to Elizabeth, says, “please don’t make me sing.” They have been writing to each other, and that, plus the way they look at each other, communicates immediately that they should be together if he’s a good guy, which appearances suggest he is. Colonel Fitzwilliam, however, would have it otherwise. Also interested in marrying Georgiana, he constantly finds fault with the polite younger man, who advocates not so much for himself as for Georgiana’s right to happiness and to make her own choices. All three—Elizabeth, Darcy, and Colonel Fitzwilliam—see Georgiana’s interest in Henry, but only Elizabeth seems determined to let Georgiana marry for love.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet arrive for the ball (Mr. Bennet entranced by the library once he arrives at Pemberley), and by the time hysterical Lydia comes rushing in announcing there have been gun shots and Mrs. Bennet falls into hysterics, Mr. Bennet desperately wants to go with the rest of the men looking for Wickham and Denny. His one word to Darcy is said in such a tone that everything he is feeling is communicated: “please.” Darcy understands immediately; who wouldn’t? Mr. Bennet thus accompanies Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam on the search for the missing men, leaving Elizabeth to calm the hysterical women of her family.

The writer and director juxtapose several key scenes effectively. When the characters learn, for instance, that Denny was hit hard in two places, we can see Darcy thinking. The next scene has Elizabeth similarly thinking, watching Colonel Fitzwilliam burn a letter. They’re both analyzing what they’re seeing—and trying to understand what they are not seeing. The stresses of the murder, the guests, and the enormous pressures of managing this estate seem unbearable, but then Darcy and Elizabeth hug, and somehow we feel everything will work out right. At one point, we see Louisa carving a heart into a tree and crying. In the next scene, the magistrate sees the heart. Then we go to Jane comforting Elizabeth in bed about Elizabeth’s own heartache. The very placement of small scenes heightens the effect of each.

Sir Selwyn Hardcastle is the magistrate to whom Darcy reports the incident. He finds himself having to defend his father’s hope in Wickham to Hardcastle, and Mrs. Reynolds doesn’t like the Hardcastles, as she demonstrates by looking away from him after he gives her a command and looking to Mrs. Darcy for orders. It turns out that Hardcastle’s father has done a pretty horrible thing (prosecuting a little boy who poached something, resulting in the boy being hanged), but Hardcastle himself, though we don’t ever really like him, knows what it is to fight the shadow of a family name. That theme the film visits several times, including through Georgiana, who feels pressure to marry Colonel Fitzwilliam not just from her brother but even more from her own sense of duty to her family name and responsibility. The shame from the Darcy ancestor buried in the woods is one of neglecting duty. Darcy won’t even discuss it with Lizzy, but Georgiana does: “Here lies the man who put personal inclination before public duty.”

That tension is very much alive in the current generation of Darcys since, after all, Darcy chose to marry for love, and now Georgiana wants to do the same. After the scandal erupts, and Darcy seems more inclined to push a respectable known entity on his sister, Lizzy questions him, “Security? What about happiness?” Even when Darcy is snippety and says that Georgiana should not make a decision in “sentimental haste,” Elizabeth does not back down. She does, however, think Darcy is regretting his own “sentimental haste” in marrying her. Georgiana is the one who comes to comfort Lydia when Wickham is taken away, and it’s a beautiful moment for her, as she uses her own past suffering to support someone who also suffered because of Wickham.

The real tension, arguably, of the film, comes from the strain on the marriage. Even after six years, it seems neither Darcy nor Elizabeth is completely sure of the other’s love. Lydia casts doubt in Darcy’s mind: Lizzy married him for money. Lizzy’s own doubts result largely from the shame her family is still brining Darcy and from her memories of people being so judgmental when Darcy first married her. Lydia is, in most of her appearances, morally repugnant. She wipes away fake tears, and fakes almost passing out on Darcy’s arm as he walks her down the row in church. He tells Lizzy this is “intolerable.” Then Lizzy tries to hold his hand, but he pulls away. Even the viewer might be inclined to see Darcy’s behavior as regret for the marriage, though Jane wisely reminds Elizabeth (at the start of Part 2, after Elizabeth reflects on Darcy’s awful proposal, feels insecure about Darcy, and tells Jane he “regrets his match” to her) that love like hers and Darcy’s doesn’t waver. (My mom, one of four sisters, loved how the sisters helped and supported each other throughout the story, including Lizzy and Georgiana.) Much of the time, we’re not so sure, but just when we think we can’t take it anymore, Darcy covers Elizabeth up while she’s sleeping so at least we, even if not yet she, know he loves her still.

Darcy keeps trying to protect Wickham, saying he isn’t violent. He doesn’t want another innocent person hanged, even if he hates the guy. That’s not to say Wickham has been redeemed; he’s still an ass. We see Colonel Fitzwilliam get really angry about how many people Wickham has put in danger and how he has jeopardized Darcy’s reputation (even if it turns out he’s actually worried about Georgiana’s). He lies. (ex: Henry, who is trying to help Wickham, asks a good question: why did Denny run into the woods? Wickham’s answer doesn’t add up.) But Darcy is pretty sure Wickham didn’t murder his best friend. Part 1 ends with Darcy visiting Wickham in jail. Both men remember the hanging of young Patrick Riley, a traumatic experience for both young boys to witness. Wickham is leaning against a counter, and Darcy goes and stands next to him, and Wickham says, “I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, but not this,” looking in Darcy’s eyes, and Darcy says, “I believe you.” Visually and emotionally and verbally, this is a beautiful moment between the men.

Part 2 develops the doubt between Darcy and Elizabeth, but also adds to it several other tensions and conflicts. Poor Jane takes Lydia and Mrs. Bennet with her to Highmarten, so at least that’s some pressure off the Darcys, but by the time Elizabeth and Georgiana have their big confrontation, Darcy and Elizabeth are hardly speaking, which creates far worse tension than the actual inquest for viewers who care more about them than about Wickham.

Nonetheless, if this is justice, I can hardly imagine injustice. The jury is drunk and incomplete. When witnesses are called up, people cheer them on. “OMG,” my mom said, horrified by their conduct. When Mr. Pratt milks the crowd for his own glory, my mom cried out, “They’re clapping! This is horrible!” Then they boo Wickham, whom they call a “liar!” But my mom really had trouble with the man in charge asking the jurors to retire to decide Wickham’s fate, “preferably not to the bar.” She couldn’t even finish the sentence: “They can drink and then—that’s so unfair!” Darcy really needs help, and when he arrives at the inquest, Henry Alveston is there, offering support—and seats—after Georgiana has rejected him. He calls Darcy “Sir.” Darcy must, I thought, see how good this guy is. They even both wear beige overcoats. The courtroom scene is as awful as the inquest, so much so that respectable Alveston bursts out in protest when the prosecutor is obviously unfair. Only Alveston maintains some faith in justice. Wickham has to be judged on the evidence alone. Seeing Wickham’s face when Darcy explains he did not think Wickham’s “confession” meant Wickham actually did the killing was a moving experience.

The film makes frequent use of flashback scenes, first from Elizabeth’s point of view, but later from Darcy’s and even from Wickham’s (still thinking about Louisa when he is imprisoned after the inquest). The moment when Darcy sees the mysterious woman in court is so eerie, and then immediately we’re in a flashback when he asked her for Wickham’s whereabouts after he absconded with Lydia the first time, so we know exactly who she is before her name is said. Or at least we know her name—her actual identity she explains to Darcy when he follows her outside. Darcy runs after Mrs. Younge before she throws herself in front of a carriage, and his cry “no!” is so emotional. The music changes, and everything slows down to emphasize his grief and the hat that now we understand. When Darcy goes to Wickham to tell him what happened and to comfort him, I thought again, this is a man.

Lady Catherine makes a delightful appearance (delightful to us, that is, not to anyone else). Elizabeth says “how intriguing” and “delightful” in response to her now aunt’s ridiculous comments, but this Lady Catherine is clueless that she is being mocked, which seemed inconsistent with what we know of her from the text.

Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam is being so insensitive to Georgiana. When he takes her hand, she looks so uncomfortable. How can he do this when he sees her face? But it isn’t until Colonel Fitzwilliam admits to trying to shield his future bride from “further taint,” adding that even if Wickham hangs, he “will take her,” that Darcy realizes how dangerously close he was to allowing his beloved sister to make a terrible mistake. Instead, he goes to her, asking her please to “marry for love” and “when [she has] that person” not to “doubt” him. In a sweeping shot, we see Elizabeth appear on the stairway, and now Darcy tells Elizabeth how sorry he is for doubting her and her judgment; in a beautiful scene between them, my mom said, “Whoa. They actually took his jacket off. I’ve never seen this in Jane Austen.”

Indeed. After their reunion (spoiler alert: more than a jacket comes off), Darcy asks Elizabeth to tell Lydia about the affair, but it turns out that Lydia is a lot smarter than we give her credit for being. She has learned how to live in her marital situation, and that does not include hearing details she will not be able to forget. The real concern, then, shifts to Wickham’s guilty sentence. We know he is innocent, but who did it, and how can someone prove it? Elizabeth figures it out, and gets the real story. My mom said: “I had no idea it would be him.” The father-son joint apology made me cry.

With no time to spare, Elizabeth runs up to the gallows and stops it with the judge. We are so sad for the other poor souls dying that way, but the relief on Darcy and Wickham’s faces was so touching. I loved that after everything Wickham has done to Darcy, it is still Darcy who goes to his side, relieved he has been spared.
And then, back the story shifts to images of love, first Georgiana and Henry kissing on the grounds. “Oh, those early moments of love,” the more seasoned Darcys reminisce. They are soon followed by sheer joy with a happy announcement on Pemberley lawn, and the last images are of Darcy swinging master Fitzwilliam around and Lizzy’s happy face. A truly happy ending!

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Published in: on November 16, 2014 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I loved sharing this amazing story with you!


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