Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Costume Drama Review #1 - Death Comes to Pemberley

This review is of the BBC mini-series, which just aired last week. And when I refer to the "creators" I intend everyone who decided how the show would turn out, not just P.D. James, and perhaps not even her at all, for who knows who called the shots. I have not read the book on which this 3-part mini-series is based, nor have I read any reviews of either. I have heard from 2 people whose opinions I trust, that though they both love Jane Austen, and enjoy P.D. James, they found the combination wanting.

Nevertheless, I was determined to like it. I have no doubt that the whole Empire and beyond teems with damning reviews, written by uppity naysayers who don't know how to simply relax and enjoy some nice costumes. Therefore, I have decided to buck the trend, and offer some praise of this piece of period drama. Here it is:

Death Comes to Pemberley has Anna Maxwell Martin in it.

There, that's about allI could come up with. To be fair, I should also mention that Matthew Goode is quite good looking. And Lydia Bennett was well played.

In fact, I cannot really criticize the acting in general, with the exception perhaps of Colonel Fitzwilliam, but that may be more the fault of the writing and directing than the acting. And besides, it's not Tom Ward's fault he looks like an Easter Island head.

I was prepared for the production, on the whole, to be bad. I knew it would be anachronistic and would not get the characters right, and would do all kinds of things Jane Austen would never do, but I do like a good whodunnit, and my standards are really very low, so long as there are nice costumes and pretty English houses to look at. I almost don't really care about the rest. And this one had Anna Maxwell Martin in it. I figured I could just block out everything else and watch her be tense and understated in that way that I find so adorable, and that the problems with the show itself would just wash over me in a wave of candle-light and cravats.

Clearly, I under-estimated the BBC.

On the whole, it seems the creators just borrowed the characters' names and relationships from Pride and Prejudice and dropped them into a kind of passable suspense story in the hopes that it would increase sales by capitalizing on Jane Austen's current popularity. I suppose it has, somewhat, except for how they will be receiving universal flack from the very audience they intended it for, because of how they are IDIOTS.

Their approach is akin to someone who makes pretty good macaroni cheese, and who has eaten at an Indian buffet a couple of times, deciding to put curry powder into their recipe so they can sell it to Indian people, without first learning ANYTHING about the subtle and complex nature of Indian cuisine. Not only does it fail to please those who enjoy a good curry, but it also sucks as a pasta.

But I am not satisfied with general criticism alone. Allow me to list the particulars of my dissatisfaction, beginning with the characters.

Firstly, Georgiana is not supposed to be pretty. I like the idea that she is alluring without being aware of it herself, but the actress was far too good-looking. If you want to see what Georgiana SHOULD look like, watch my trailer.

Colonel Fitzwilliam is supposed to be amiable and charming, not a blundering, angry fool who says things like "I am just a soldier..." He is still a gentleman, the son of an earl no less. He at least knows how to talk properly.

Anne de Bourgh is an abomination, though she appears on screen for no more that 30 seconds in total and has no lines. She is supposed to be ill in health as in temper, yet she looks robust and buxom, not sickly and wan.

**Spoiler Alert** 
The motivations of the characters just don't make any sense. Why does Mrs. Younge throw herself in front of that carriage? Wouldn't she want to raise the baby, and make sure he knows about his father? And why is Mr. Darcy so angry at Colonel Fitzwilliam for trying to protect Georgiana's family's reputation? Wouldn't he have done the same? And why does he say at the end, "It's time Pemberley started taking care of its own," or something like that, as if he hasn't always taken care of everyone? And Mr. Wickham in general just doesn't make any sense. He's all over the map, and not in a way that lends him depth and complexity - just in a way that shows nobody has put any thought into his character.
**End Spoiler Alert**

Then there is the writing itself. At one point, Georgiana actually says the words, "It is bigger than you or I..." Seriously? I know it is impossible to emulate the brilliance of Jane Austen's genius, but they could at LEAST get the pronoun right. This is the BBC for crying out loud.

One reason I though I might be able to tolerate everything I knew would otherwise irk me about the film, was that I expected a bit of a romp. After all, murder mysteries are supposed to be a bit of fun; that's why we like Miss Marple so much. This was not fun. This was kind of a horror film. They repeatedly thrust upon us scenes of a child's execution, literally, a CHILD actually being HANGED at the gallows. Nobody wants to see that - and certainly nobody who chooses to tune into a 3-part BBC mini-series based on a Jane Austen classic, not even knowing it's a murder mystery.

The tone is so dreary that even the rare attempts at humour seem forced and predictable, falling flat and failing in their purpose. So incapable are they at writing anything funny that they have to steal jokes from other works of literature.

Lady Catherine says when she arrives that she was visiting an invalid friend, and that she told him he ought to make up his mind whether to live or die and then get on with it. She all but called him Bunbury. Did the writers intend us to get this reference? Or did they really think they could get away with this plagiarism? Because, as we all know, fans of Jane Austen  never overlap with fans of Oscar Wilde. After all, we certainly do not enjoy witty lines and ridiculous characters ironically identifying the follies of the 19th Century.

The script also includes flashback scenes in which we are taken back to the days of Pride and Prejudice. Well, here at least, you might think, we do not have to worry about bad writing. Jane Austen has already supplied all the dialogue, so we might get a moment's respite from the horrors of the screenplay, but no. Not only were the creators unable to approximate the style or the spirit of the original, they were not even astute enough to recognize its superiority, Rather, they thought they could do better, and re-wrote the conversations themselves, with their own incongruous blasphemy.

I hesitate to criticise the details of the legal drama contained within the plot. I am usually very forgiving of liberties taken with civil procedure and law in general, because I get that law is boring, and you need to make most of it up in order to have some drama, but since I am on a roll, why not rail at those inaccuracies as well. I mean, it is one thing to have the investigating magistrate preside at the coroner's inquest, or to have the execution take place 2 days after the sentencing, without so much as a 30-day appeal period, because that's just convenient for creating suspense. But defense counsel having no questions for the person who conducted the entire investigation? And this, after he objected to everything he said as being conjecture? No cross-examination? Are you fracking kidding me? And the prosecution calls a surprise witness! The PROSECUTION! And defense counsel doesn't even object. I know this was 200 years ago, but it was not the dark ages. We may not yet have seen Lord Denning, but we did have SOME notion of procedural fairness. And this is not even to mention the timelines generally, which make it appear that the trial occurs about a week after the inquest and takes all of a single afternoon.

On a less important note, all the characters seem only to have one outfit each. Although the plot is supposed to take place over, at the very LEAST, several weeks, Elizabeth, one of the wealthiest women in England, wears the same dress throughout the entire 3 episodes. And if I recall correctly, so does Georgiana. And Mrs. Younge wears the same outfit in every scene, though they are again, supposed to be spaced weeks apart. Apparently, we the audience are unable to identify characters except by their clothing. How could we possibly know it was the same woman if she were not wearing a bonnet with green and purple ribbons?

All of this makes the show, in my opinion, ridiculous, but it would not bother me so much were in not on the BBC. If it were on iTV, or Fox, or something, that would be fair enough, but it seems too cheap for such an otherwise trustworthy channel. It legitimizes the program in a way that offends me. After all, there are a myriad very well-researched spin-off novels, written by people who have spent their lives studying and appreciating the works of Jane Austen, as well as the language and the customs and the realities of life in Regency England, yet this tripe gets the coveted privilege of adaptation into a 3-part mini-series because it is written by someone who has achieved some success IN ANOTHER GENRE!

I am sorry for all this pejorative tirade. I really did want to say something more encouraging, and I promise not all my reviews will be this scathing.

All I can hope is that the BBC will endeavour to erase the memory of this atrocity with other adaptations of better researched, better written costume dramas, created with love and reverence for the spirit and the charm of the original... books like mine. Actually, not like mine - actually mine.

I might even cast Anna Maxwell Martin.

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  1. I have not seen any of this series and I really really hoped that the outcome would be better than the book. But your review shows me that it is not. Please don't waste your time reading the book, it really is bad

    1. Hey Vesper, I have been told by at least one person that they thought the series was better than the book, though they suggested it may have been that the book set the bar so low that they were sort of pleasantly surprised that they could enjoy the series. So you might still be able to enjoy it. I confess my review may be biased by my jealousy at not being the first fan fiction author to have their Jane Austen spin-off novel made into a mini-series for BBC. And I know that there are so many other great authors whose works would make great adaptations, and they have been passed over as well, so I may have been a little harder on it than it deserved... maybe. I did want to like it, and I really was hopeful that I would be able to.
      I don't plan to read the book. I read the first page or so of the prologue online at one point, and I thought it sounded all right. Too bad it got such poor reviews. I would have enjoyed a good Jane Austen murder mystery. I have even thought of writing one myself.