Death Comes to Pemberley review – does Matthew Rhys fill Colin Firth’s shoes as Mr Darcy?

Anna Maxwell Martin, Jenna Coleman and Matthew Goode also star in PD James's murderous follow-up to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

First thing’s first – rest assured Pride and Prejudice fans, Matthew Rhys can more than pull off Darcy. Is it blasphemy to suggest that for tonight’s hour-long episode, he all but banishes the memory of Colin Firth and his soggy shirt?


Ok, so there’s no “lake moment” – but that would have turned this sumptuous period drama into a parody of itself and it’s too good for that. (Instead there’s a “horse moment” that should more than satisfy any die-hard Darcy aficionados.)

BBC1’s adaptation of PD James’s best-selling murder mystery has the high production values, lavish costumes and stunning locations (Chatsworth House stands in for the Darcy family seat) but they’re not a mere façade to mask a sketchy plot. With James behind the story, we jump six years ahead for a meaty tale with a dash of murder and intrigue added to Jane Austen’s magnificent Pemberley and cast of iconic characters.

Rhys does brooding well but we pick up where we left off, with Darcy and Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin) gazing dreamily into one another’s eyes – and doting over their adorable offspring. Things don’t stay soppy for long, with the tumultuous arrival of Lizzie’s sister Lydia (played by Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman) screaming blue murder and with good reason as her wayward husband Wickham (a suitably handsome Matthew Goode) is discovered in the local woods next to the motionless body of his travelling companion.

“Am I never to get that man out of my life?” laments Darcy, back to his seething best. Except this time he might just get his wish as even Wickham will struggle to wriggle out of this pickle. Prime suspect in a murder case and all but declared guilty by local magistrate Selwyn Hardcastle (Trevor Eve), it’s up to Darcy once again to manage his errant childhood friend.

While the stunning locations ensure Pemberley is a visual treat for all, the key to this drama’s success is its casting. Matthew Rhys does a stellar job filling some impossibly big shoes, but Anna Maxwell Martin more than holds her own as the indomitable Elizabeth. She’s everything we expected and hoped our literary heroine would become when she took her place at the helm of the Darcy household: thoughtful, caring, respected – a delightful contrast to her garrulous mother whom Rebecca Front executes to perfection.

Jenna Coleman cuts loose from Doctor Who (Clara who?) to unleash the hysterics as Lydia, striking up a reckless partnership with Matthew Goode’s devilishly handsome Wickham that proves PD James has lost none of Jane Austen’s humour in her darker sequel. Her wayward antics prompt Mr Bennet’s witty aside to Darcy: “I can only apologise that my daughter Lydia’s superlative taste in men has made him your brother and responsibility for life.” And the Bennet patriarch (played by James Fleet) is more put upon than ever, hiding out in the library to escape the rising decibels of his vociferous spouse.

There’s also a neat subplot underpinning the bloody murder with Eleanor Tomlinson’s Georgiana Darcy harking back to the Bennet sisters’ marriage woes of Pride and Prejudice. To marry for duty (to the dutiful Colonel Fitzwilliam) or for love (to charming Henry Alveston), that is the question.

BBC1’s 1995 serialisation of Pride and Prejudice will always seem somewhat insurmountable, but stretched out over two more nights, this engaging take on Austen’s classic tale makes a commendable effort to match it – and the results are delightful. The cast, the characters and the cracking locations all bind together to make this a damn good piece of festive drama. Jane Austen once wrote, “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” This adaptation begs to differ… 

What did you make of Death Comes to Pemberley? Does it do enough to challenge Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle? Or did you feel let down by this update on Jane Austen’s classic? Post your thoughts in the comment box below.

Death Comes to Pemberley continues tomorrow night at 9:00pm on BBC1