Please be aware of some spoilers with this review.
After being disappointed with the book Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James and finding it a bit tedious to get through at points, you'd think I wouldn't want to seek out the miniseries based on it, right? Wrong. Why would I do such a thing? There's a simple two-word answer: Matthew Goode. Over time and many viewings, I've come to respect this actor so much, whether he's the morally ambiguous Ozymandis (my views on his portrayal have changed since re-watching Watchmen a few times) or the sweet and charming Mr. Brooke Burgess of He Knew He Was Right. Heck, I even tried a bad romantic comedy for his sake (well, his sake and Amy Adams's sake). So I was going to check out the BBC version of Death Comes to Pemberley no matter which role he played in it, although I was glad to find that he played the dashing and devilish Wickham -- perfect casting in my opinion.
Death Comes to Pemberley the miniseries closely follows the book Death Comes to Pemberley in that all the elements of that story are presented here. However, those elements are often in a divergent order from the book, with a different character revealing certain points or with more spectacle given to a specific moment. All in all, each change from the book to the miniseries is clearly meant to heightened the suspense and drama of the storytelling -- something I wish James had done all along so that the book would have been more successful as the murder mystery it purports to be. In fact, viewing this miniseries just exemplified for me the importance of a good editor -- the intrigue and drama were there all along in Death Comes to Pemberley if only someone had the good sense to cut down on the redundancies and work on the pacing a bit more.
With the miniseries, repetition is not really an issue, even with the two different hearings/trials for Wickham. The mystery unfolds over time instead of coming in with a bang at the end; here we see the mystery woman in the woods almost immediately at the start of the story and we learn early on about Louisa's illegitimate child, for just two examples. Of course, we don't learn the significance of either of these events until much later on, with the latter giving rise to a subtle suspicion on Elizabeth's part that perhaps Darcy has not been faithful to her rather than being thought of as an issue connected to the murder right away.
Speaking of Elizabeth and Darcy, the miniseries does a much better job of portraying these characters than the book, keeping much more in line with Jane Austen's original characters. Yes, we do lose some insights into Darcy's inner thoughts, but Matthew Rhys's Darcy is the quiet, reserved Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and, while Elizabeth is perhaps not quite as spunky as the original, she's a huge improvement over the practically lifeless character of the Death Comes to Pemeberly novel. The casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth was genius as she is perfect as portraying a well-mannered woman who also willing and eager to speak her mind. She is also given a lot more to do than in the novel -- some critics have pointed out how the actor seems to still be playing her role from Bletchley Circle, gathering up clues and using them to solve smaller mysteries until she discovers the final reveal. I am perfectly fine with this change; indeed, I'm happy to see Elizabeth being active again instead of just a bystander. Her wit and humor is largely on the back burner, but you can get a sense that she has the capacity for it when not facing down a crisis, which is not at all the impression you get from P.D. James's Elizabeth.
The relationship between the Darcys is also far more interesting here. In the book, their love is a unshakable foundation, or so we are repeatedly told, but we hardly ever see them together. Here, there is rather a different story. There is a great deal of tension between the two, especially as they argue over various points, such as whether it is right for Georgiana to marry for affection or for position (more on this below). Darcy's insistence that his sister marry with an eye toward her family duties makes Elizabeth worry if he is doubting his own decision to marry for love instead. She also laments that her marriage to him has brought him to this horrid situation of being brother-in-law to a possible murderer and, as aforementioned, seems to question whether he has been carrying on an affair with Louisa. But all's well that ends well and, in a very un-Austen-like turn, there's even a steamy sex scene between the two. Necessary? Maybe not, but it sure beats the practically nil interactions between the couple that the reader of Death Comes to Pemberley gets.
Another bit of heightened drama in the miniseries is that the love triangle between Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston is actually more of a complicated affair, rather than a two-page possibility of an issue that is quickly dismissed. You can see the pathos as Georgiana attempts to decide between honor and romance, between following the wishes of her beloved brother and staying true to her own heart. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, she sobs openly in front of stiff servants as she struggles with trying to do what is right. Also kudos to the acting chops of Mr. James Norton, who so thoroughly inhabited the despicable, slimy rapist and kidnapper of Happy Valley that I barely recognized him here as he played the sweet and amiable Alveston.
The miniseries version of Death Comes to Pemberley also plays up the possibility of Wickham's death much more so than in the book. With a capital crime, this should have been more of a looming shadow in the book, but it really wasn't. Here, however, the gallows are frequently close at hand, forever reminding the viewer of the deadly consequences that are so near if Wickham is not acquitted. The story of the young boy hanged when Darcy and Wickham were just children is also used to more dramatic effect here, with the two being scarred by this visual at a tender age and both remembering or referencing it at times throughout the trial.
Minor characters were played to great advantage here as well. Jenna Coleman was divine as Lydia -- offsetting her perfectly ridiculous and ostentatious hysterics with a few rare moments of actual depth and sincerity of emotion that allow viewers to pity her even as they dislike her. The equally ridiculous Mrs. Bennet was also a breath of fresh air in terms of comedic effect -- having her descend on Pemberley after the tragedy of Denny's death instead of the kind and gentle Jane was no doubt more burdensome for the characters but far more fun for the viewers. Although she's on the screen but briefly, Lady Catherine is also great for moments of social satire. Louisa and her family can perhaps be a tad melodramatic at times and Mrs. Younge is too much of a viper, but overall I believe the casting was well done and the characters were well played.
Another thing done well with the miniseries was that rather than introducing this myriad of characters and their various histories right away in a compact, arguably rushed prologue, the writers went instead with the flashback route. At different points throughout the TV series, we see the characters' past meetings and interactions in these flashbacks, which allows the rich back stories to gently unfurl and give the viewers time to settle in and digest each new piece of information.
I'm not sure that I'd call this "must-see" TV, but I would definitely, without a doubt, unequivocally recommend watching this miniseries over reading the book of the same name. You'll thank me later.