Dear friends and readers,
What was aired on PBS last night was a spoilt version of the three-part mini-series I saw in the BBC version this summer using a BBC region 2 DVD.
Segments and scenes have been rearranged so as to turn an almost 3 hour mini-series (180 minutes) into a two part drama each 80 minutes (160), where the most hectic and thriller type scenes had the place of climax, ending on not the parallel set up in the original mini-series between the boy poacher, young Riley, being taken away in a cart from his mother to be tried and then hanged and now George Wickham (Matthew Goode) being taken away in a cart from a wailing Lydia (Jenna Coleman — who appears to have gained a little weight since her last frighteningly anorexic outing in a costume drama). When the young boy, Riley was cared away the boy Darcy and the boy Wickham rushed after him; now at the close of the BBC part 1 Darcy retreats to the house, and Elizabeth stands on the porch in her surveillance posture.
The worst aspects of the take-over of mystery thrillers and cheap modern sensationalist costume dramas all this summer have been deliberately made to dominate this Jane Austen sequel film. I wrote about the gothicization of Victorian novels on PBS in August (Bloody Murders and Country Houses), and this mini-series is seeking to titillate the same taste. They think they are not making a mistake for they will still get the costume drama and Janeite viewership and the more complaints will just get more hits, and be dismissed and may make up for any loss with attracting the same viewership with watched Masterpiece Mystery this summer — for note the rubric for this two parter — a Masterpiece Mystery.
What they did was ignore the art, pace, and meaning Towhidi and Daniel Percival’s contemporary and filmically stylish 3 hour costume drama, which includes the use of lingering voice-over from interwoven juxtaposed shots from deep past, recent past and sometimes more than one present scene throughout the 3 hours, a kind of spillage of thoughts and sounds across remembered time, and spectacular visual dissolving landscapes. The colors of the film are often golden, brown, burnt oranges and reds.
Allured by the film’s beauty and the performances of a number of the actors, this summer I studied Juliette Towhidi’s screenplay against intermediary sequel novel (I’d call it) by P.D. James, Death comes to Pemberley and can vouch for a number of still silent moments being shortened or cut altogether in this PBS version. In the BBC film Elizabeth’s shots (second long) are not cut or undermined so we see her in various stages of memory (first somewhat happy and triumphant as she looks forward to another Lady Anne Ball, but also remembers some of her mortifications at the first one when she had just married Darcy and overheard sneers at her), puzzle, brooding, hurt, disillusion, anxiety over Darcy’s attitude towards her, and (not to cover the long sequence of emotional development) across an intermingling reaction to his reactions. It is painful for her to remember how Wickham took her in:
This long tracing of an inner journey of Elizabeth’s ends not in (as is so common in women’s films, including the Austen canon) Elizabeth apologizing, humiliated in front of herself for her flaws, but at the close of Part 3 in Darcy apologizing, aware he has been mistreating Elizabeth, wrong to inflict on her his sensitive injured pride, and their making love successfully (in the middle of the movie, he comes to her in bed, sees her peacefully sleeping and decides to move away). He does this before she solves the mystery of who killed Denny. Towhidi’s conception of Darcy shows the inadequacy of the view Darcy is shy (the reading of Macfayden and Joe Wright in the 2005 P&P film) or needs to undergo an Oedipal transformation (Andrew Davies): he is a proud aristocrat whose self-esteem is rooted in his family history, public honor, home, lands and rank. He learns to moderate his adherence to these things in this film: by its end he has seen that Fitzwilliam is a flawed man, not to be fully trusted as an individual, and the worth of Alveston as a person and encourages Georgiana’s engagement with Alveston.
This trajectory, this underlying plot-design with Elizabeth as the key pivotal figure in most of the scenes, and Darcy a reactive on, which Towhidi drew out of James’s meandering novel has been lost completely from Part I. Its climax about 2/3s the way through Part 2 where Elizabeth goes to a temple on the Pemberley grounds to think and Jane (Alexandra Moen) joins her to comfort her.
Where that will find a place in the next 80 minutes of the film PBS is airing I have no idea.
Irritatingly to me, the PBS people especially eschewed moments where both Martin and Rhys are not beautiful people but Darcy and Elizabeth aging and under pressure, either (in this first part) still talking to one another, and (I expect in the next two) growing estranged. What I liked especially was this lack of glamor. Yes it’s not probable or realistic that Elizabeth would be so underdressed, her hair except when at a ball neglected altogether (she appears not to have a lady’s maid to do her hair), but it’s in line with recent heritage Austen films which dress the Austen heroines to be genteelly on the edge or at least not super-rich, which after Elizabeth marries Darcy she is. But it does fit the character of Elizabeth as enacted by Martin — not pompous, not involved with self, but with her boy (we see her reading to him) and her function as the mistress of Pemberley as a sort of going concern of people to be seen to, fed, gardens to be cared for, menus gotten up. Darcy is seen at the stable with his little son, about to go riding. Above all both are clever, but Elizabeth less prejudiced: she isthe person who puts together first who murdered Denny and why and her quick application of a signed statement by the murderer saves Wickham’s life. Sir Selwyn Hardcastle (our detective magistrate) played with a virtuoso flare by Trevor Eve never gets near the truth; has it all wrong from the end of the original Part 1 on (taking Wickham’s emotional self-blaming to be a confession). Nancy Drew could do no more.
James’s novel is a weak sequel: she tries to tell a story of the next phase of the characters’ existence as left there by Austen at the close of P&P. In James’s book The mystery element only emerges about half-way through: we do not meet the Bidwells until the last third of the novel: in the film the gothic elements begin immediately and the Bidwells are visited before the end of 10 minutues and their life and presence at the cottage and the father’s as butler in the house are woven into the film early on and throughout. James is writing a romance, rehearsing some of Pride and Prejudice in case the reader doesn’t know the story (!) and her book meanders tepidly as a novel of manners. Hers is the idea (to give her credit where it’s due), that the Darcy and Elizabeth marriage is not going well because of the distance in rank between them, how people treat them, and thus the death threatens their marriage centrally because it threatens Darcy’s self-esteem and the reputation (as he sees it) of Pemberley. James is politically conservative and this fits her outlook: an egalitarian marriage will be rocky, strained at best. Some of her descriptions of the grounds of Pemberley show she has Ann Radcliffe in mind.
There are number of problems in James’s novel: She’s just not passionate enough about the detective murder bit — she’s doing that because it’s what she knows how to do (her life’s metier), and her treatment of the magistrate is apparently not anachronistic (though Trevor Eve in the film adaptation is made to act a Sherlock Holmes role — he does it rather well). She has read 18th century novels and historical novels and to some extent this reminds me of Winston Graham and like Jo Baker’s Longbourne, it’s not just not as good, not as thoroughly realized or researched because its franchise is not the 18th century or 18th century novel or modern fictional historal novel: it is Austen seen through a Radcliffean kind of descriptive glass. I bonded with Elizabeth as recreated by James: I am drawn to her use of theme of disillusion for Elizabeth, anxiety Darcy does not value her, Darcy’s own humiliation, and all this getting in the way of their marital relationship because it is so hard to escape other people’s views of you.
Juliette Howtidi has so re-structured the original novel and changed it — darkened, gothicized, swung the politics in another direction –the screenplay and then this film is almost another work. Some elements are the same. The basic story outline. The depiction of the relationship between the servants and Darcys is even more reactionary than that found in Downton Abbey. The lead servants, Mrs Reynolds (Joanne Scanlon) and the Bidwell father (Philip Martin Brown) treat the lower servants with condescension and ruthless discipline, disrespect really, identifying wholly with the idea that they are living their long- hard working lives worthily by abasing themselves before the patrician luxury they provide. On the other hand, her scenes of the family together are filled with good feeling, the humane characters sympathized with, including when dancing …
In this mini-series there is a certain amount of mutiny, and Wickham and his sister’s angry and resentment is made palpable and understandable. She weaves the Bidwells in early to show us one family’s vulnerability and anger (Will murders Denny thinking Denny is Wickham, the man who seduced and abandoned his sister). Howtidi changes Elizabeth to make her identify with the Bidwells, protest against coerced marriage for money. In the book there is a deep sense that somehow Darcy was right to doubt whether he should go against all norms and relatives and that is taken up in the film where Darcy is shown to be wrong: it is actually an undercutting notion for the real radical content of the Austen’s and goes with those who interpret it as humiliating Elizabeth and teaching her a lesson (there’s a scholarly essay to the effect of The humiliation of Elizabeth … following on the humiliation of Emma …), but this is not how the film has it. The film questions this stance intensely at the same time as it presents Elizabeth’s hurt and pride. This depiction of their struggling relationship is valuable and I hope influences further heritage films and appropriations of Pride and Prejudice.
Given the time and arrangement originally followed on the BBC the relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth as an development out of Darcy and Elizabeth some 6 to 7 years ago works. It does not in this foreshortened and rearranged version so the best part of the film is lost.
I am not claiming this is a great mini-series in the BBC version. I concede that Towhidi was not above herself mixing the subgenres of the Austen canon (familial romance, melodrama with recently some use of gothic features) with those of the mystery thriller, with its use of horror characteristics (thus we had Denny’s bloody head crushed by a piece of iron in both versions), and a group of secrets as linchpin: who killed Captain Denny (Tom Canton), why did Denny rush out of the carriage to the woods (where was he going). Anthony Trollope mocked the kind of reading and readers’ experience where it mattered who was at a stile at 1:15 pm on a specific day (in the Victorian period Wilkie Collins was among the first to feed this game taste), but it seems when combined with violence (and sex) this is a winner for increasing readership (and sales of books and advertiser’s interests). But in the structuring of the three hour mini-series, the psychological development of the characters, the nearly thwarted or destroyed romance of Georgiana and Henry Alveston (she accepts Fitzwilliam in Part 2), are at least as dominant as the mystery thriller obsessive gothic elements.
Towhidi (far more than James) tried to piggyback the formulaic mystery plot stuff (where the detective usually tidies up the world by the end) onto a new reading of Wickham (which has been becoming more widespread since the 2005 Joe Wright P&P and the 2009 Lost in Austen) as having offered in his original story some real truths (such as Darcy’s rivalry with him as a motive for strong antagonism) so that part of the story of the murder is the stigmatizing Wickham has endured, his bitterness and ruthless behavior in response. She has harked back to older readings of P&P where Lydia is seen as a spiteful shallowly vain creature: in this film adaptation we are asked to feel sorry for Wickham who was pressured into marrying Lydia: he would have had a happier life, perhaps been a better man could he have married the cottager, Louisa Bidwell (Nichola Burdell); at the same time he is clearly (as Denny is trying to point out in the scene Wickham obsessively remembers over and over) cruel in his behavior to Louisa (he is trying to buy his son from her to give to his sister: Mrs Younge (Mariah Gale) is discovered to be his sister, intensely devoted to him to the point she wants to bring up his child as its mother.
In Towhidi’s version, Georgiana and Henry Alveston carry the film’s explicit mainstream liberal humane message: Henry is a lawyer who is sympathetic to the goals and ideals of the French revolution, and he and Georgiana are kindred spirits. They sit and look at picturesque views of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Scottish castle over a river. Their romance is not used to make a contrast with Elizabeth and Darcy’s conventionally pro-establishment one in James’s book; it is in this film.
A general outline and some features of Part I (nearly 60 minutes) of Death Comes to Pemberley as available on the Region 2 DVD version of the BBC version:
The story of Part 1 begins with two housemaids’s terror in the woods: they have been tricked by some male servants to look for the ghost of Mrs Riley into the woods. They are (very like Austen sees the gothic in part in Northanger Abbey) over-excited and glad to be frightened by their own nervous over-reaction to signs of a ghost. We see a grave of another generation Darcy. The next sequence is about Elizabeth’s delight in her existence: her boy, Fitzwilliam, running about the house, preparations for a extravagant ball she with Mrs Reynolds’s help has shown she can cope with. Her pride and triumph are tempered by her knowledge of how others see her and her memories. She talks with Georgiana, who is staring out windows: longing for Alveston to turn up as escort to Mr and Mrs Bennet. Elizabeth visits the Bidwells: Will dying of a disease, Louisa home with her sister’s baby (so it’s said to be).
On her way home, Elizabeth encounters Mrs Younge, and tells Darcy about it when she returns to Pemberley. The Bennets arrive and the first vexations emerge with Mrs Bennet trying to persuade Darcy to allow Lydia and Wickham to come to the ball.
James Fleet as Mr Bennet has lost his cool wit against the hysterics of his wife, and Towhidi is not above using despising of women to give us scenes where the wise doctor is told to give large drafts of sedatives to both Mrs Bennet and Lydia. But he does love his daughter, Lizzie, and in the BBC version near the opening of part 2 we see a moment of his peaceful satisfaction as he sits in the Pemberley library escaped to his books.
In a threaded in talk with Fitzwilliam in a garden who then proceeds to try to court Georgiana to persuade her to marry him (despite his misgivings over her reputation, to him stained by her early near-elopement with Wickham), it emerges that Darcy is so fragile he cannot stand to have the Wickhams mentioned, much less in his house.
And of course they arrive, in a flying coach, Lydia hysterical, and the flashbacks begin. Some of these are Wickham’s memories of Denny’s protests against him, Denny’s scorn of him.
We are in the carriage drive, see Wickham and Denny’s coldness, and the silly Lydia’s complacency and Denny’s abrupt rush out of the carriage. A confused time of running about in the wood which ends with Wickham coming upon Denny’s bleeding to death before Wickham can quite reach Denny, and Wickham ‘s shooting his gun to attract help. This occurs at the 30 minute point in the original BBC version.
Now Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage is to be tested. The formulation “death comes to” is found in a number of James’s novels and it is central to this film. In this second deepening half-hour, the intermingled talking and walking of Elizabeth and Darcy occurs, with scenes of them in their drawing room, as they try to cope with what’s happened and the behavior of everyone around them. Darcy must call a magistrate, Hardcastle, the son it emerges of the man who insisted on hanging the Riley boy. This Hardcastle is intensely aware of how he’s seen hostilely by those who remember his father’s harsh injustice. the use of landscape and voice-over and intermingled shots of past memories and present shots begins.
Threaded in are the scenes (brief but there) between Georgiana and Alveston, their joy in one another, their having to deal with Fitzwilliam’s scorn of him, and reactionary put-downs, how he would send Georgiana to stay with Lady Catherine de Bourgh lest she be somehow “besmirched” or hurt by nearness to this crisis. Repeatedly Elizabeth defends her right to stay, to help out, to follow her individual desires, which include loving the lawyer. Elizabeth’s scenes with Georgiana over the course of the whole film show their developed relationship and is another of the element which come out of Austen’s book.
The neutral way Wickham’s envy and anger at his lack of status are presented constitutes a less usual way to present the source of revolutionary feeling: rage at injustice. Wickham has brought Lydia to a ball she is not welcome to come to. They were going to “crash” their way in by coming late at night and daring the Darcys to turn them away. Wickham does feel rage; how could others think he’d murder his best friend so brutally? He is the outsider. He is admired by Colonel Fitzwilliam for his violence against the Irish in the Irish uprising; he is himself no revolutionary, rather simply narrowly amoral on his own behalf. He extracted (in one of the film’s many flashback scenes) as much money as he could get from Darcy as payment to marry Lydia. But he is almost executed because he is nobody, as the boy Riley was cruelly cut off. Mrs Younge’s fierce malignity towards Elizabeth is jealousy but it’s made understandable; the actress conveys something poignant in the wood.
The hour ends with Wickham taken away because Hardcastle is convinced Wickham killed Denny nefarious reasons, like the 30£ Hardcastle finds in Wickham’s hat (actually we will discover the money Fitzwilliam gave Mrs Younge to buy the infant from Louisa Bidwell with), that the shots were fired by Denny to try to protect himself. Hardcastle never deviates from this conclusion and his gathering of clues after this (in Part 2) just serves this thesis.
As I am a reader who has never liked Lydia the depiction of her as doing all she can to needle Darcy (saying in another room how Elizabeth wanted Wickham to marry her), and her vanity at thinking all men are after her a hard version of Mrs Bennet, similarly silly and having a wholly inadequate idea of how they fit into society, their own status as nullities. In the film gradually we see that Wickham and Lydia suit one another: the way they get through life is to live off others and pretend to be gay.
I’d call the novel a weak sequel, and its film adaptation in the 3 part version a strong one, even if under pressure to draw an audience, the genre of mystery thriller or a P.D.James novel (she is an English and BBC brand name) was resorted to.
PBS has only so much money (see Rebecca Eaton’s book reviewed by me, a sort of apology for what Masterpiece theater has become in the last couple of years). From their point of view it is more valuable to pay for the Newshour to send Margaret Warner to the Ukraine, to have foreign correspondents, to support good documentaries. There has ever been a contingent at the BBC which despises costume dramas a tea-time soap operas for women. This despising and the lack of money since Mobil left (Viking Cruise and Ralph Lauren are no substitutes) is what leads to not having beautifully-done and respectfully aired adaptations of great books and to trashing even of minor work.
Next week I will write about Part 2 (the second hour) of the mini-series as aired in Britain.