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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Back to Pemberley

I suppose it was inevitable that Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James’ 2011 murder-mystery-cum-Pride-and-Prejudice-sequel, was headed for a screen adaptation: reportedly, the book sold three hundred thousand copies even before the paperback was released in January. Still, it’s hard not to sigh. Despite rapturous reviews from mainstream media outlets (USA Today: “incomparably perfect”; New York Times: “surprisingly gratifying”; NPR: “a glorious plum pudding of a whodunit”), all of whom seemed certain that those madcap Austen fans would eat this stuff up with a spoon, the book disappointed many Janeites, including this one. As a mystery story, it was dull and unsurprising, and as a Jane Austen homage, it lacked wit, charm or a pleasing facsimile of Austen’s astringent narrative voice. Six years after their wedding, Elizabeth and Darcy, as envisioned by James, seemed to have little to say to one another. It was all most distressing.

So to this week’s news about casting for the upcoming three-part BBC version: the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, currently appearing as a deep-cover Soviet mole on The Americans, will play Mr. Darcy, and Anna Maxwell Martin, a stalwart of British costume drama, will play Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. Expect it to air at Christmastime in the UK, and no doubt soon thereafter on Masterpiece. I have no strong feelings about the casting choices; Rhys and Maxwell Martin are both good actors and will, no doubt, acquit themselves honorably. And it’s perfectly possible for a plodding, uninspired book to yield an entertaining holiday popcorn miniseries. But only if the screenwriter goes back to the drawing board to give us what the original source material so conspicuously lacked: fun.

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