Many actresses would quake in their boots at the prospect of playing Jane Austen’s mighty heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Not Anna Maxwell Martin. “What’s the point?” she asks. “I think you’ve got to feel thrilled that you’re being given the opportunity to do it rather than feel wracked with nerves. You might as well embrace it. Half of the people are going to like it and half are going to hate it – you have to relinquish control of all that.”
Having watched the first episode of BBC1’s Christmas adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley, I struggle to imagine how viewers are going to hate it. Maxwell Martin’s Lizzie (sorry, Elizabeth) opposite her Darcy (played by Matthew Rhys) are a worthy depiction of one of literature’s best-loved couples – although in PD James’s version of Austen’s iconic characters, there’s trouble (and murder) in paradise.
The cause of the angst is, of course, Wickham (Matthew Goode) who re-emerges with his boisterous wife, Lydia (Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman) six years after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, bringing peril to Pemberley once again. His travelling companion has been mysteriously killed and Wickham is the only suspect, threatening to drag his brother-in-law’s name into disrepute. “It all goes horribly wrong with the re-emergence of Wickham into their lives again,” explains Maxwell Martin. “Darcy goes dead moody so then Lizzie’s wracked with guilt about their marriage and how she’s brought Lydia and Wickham back into their lives.”
She does angst awfully well – and while Jennifer Ehle will, for some, remain the one and only Lizzie Bennet, Maxwell Martin does a mighty good job of banishing the BBC’s 1995 adaptation to the back of our minds. “I’m only good at dark and intense, I’m not very good at laughing or smiling in acting.” Are those the roles she’s drawn to? “Being miserable? I don’t know, I just have a naturally sad face. I’m quite a happy person in real life.”
It’s true. For much of our interview her hearty laugh fills the room, and her face is never more animated than when she’s professing her love for Austen. “God, I think she’s amazing. Her female characters are so bright, so witty, and the men in Austen are all so sexy. She was a visionary – perhaps a virgin all her life but to be able to write about unrequited love and fulfilled love in the most extraordinary and heartfelt way is extraordinary and there isn’t a dull word that comes out.
“They’re always such alive females. And also, all those love stories – no man in Austen has ever fallen in love with a female heroine because she’s pretty or beautiful or has long, blonde hair. They fall in love with them because of who they are, because of their vibrancy and their intelligence and if only we were teaching that a bit more in schools.”
Is Elizabeth her favourite? “Definitely, because she makes mistakes. This is the other thing with Austen women and the thing I’ve tried to get into this is that they’re always hot-headed women who make mistakes. It’s not like a Dickens – Austen wrote characters who screwed up all the time. They both make mistakes, Darcy and Elizabeth. They both have pride, they both have prejudice, they both misjudge people. Lizzie says things and does things she shouldn’t and that’s what is fascinating about Austen characters.”
Maxwell Martin said earlier this year that she found “loads of women’s parts are really dumbed down”, an accusation she’d be hard pushed to apply to her latest role, although she’s not enjoying the task of donning the period garb required to play a 19th century character – “God, the hair, the gear. I’d rather rub some chip fat into my hair”. She avoids doing period dramas for that very reason, although admits she “couldn’t say no to this.”
But the issue of bland female roles is one that bothers her. “I’m really lucky in that I think it’s much harder as an actress if you’re typically beautiful and you’re forging your way down that road. It’s very easy to be offered parts that are overly sexualised, overly scrutinised, slightly dumbed down. I’m lucky enough to be offered character parts or misery guts – something with a bit of juice in them.”
And Pemberley certainly fits the bill… “It’s a ripping yarn – it’s got every element in it so I think it’s going to be a really great story. Hopefully we won’t disappoint people over Christmas.”
Death Comes to Pemberley begins on Boxing Day at 8:15pm on BBC1