For decades, PBS has catered to the whims and desires of two distinct groups of imported-drama fans: those who revel in a lavishly appointed costume drama, and those who love trying to unravel a rollicking, old-fashioned whodunit.

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Opinion

For decades, PBS has catered to the whims and desires of two distinct groups of imported-drama fans: those who revel in a lavishly appointed costume drama, and those who love trying to unravel a rollicking, old-fashioned whodunit.

This weekend, both get what they want at the same time in the form of Death Comes to Pemberley, a clever, complex and beautifully executed yarn that combines the heartstrong characters of Jane Austen with the crime-caper-crafting brilliance of P.D. James.

The two-part miniseries, which premières Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS and concludes next week in the same slot, takes the beloved characters of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, vaults them a few years forward into what seemed destined to be a happily-ever-after future, and then drops them smack-dab into the middle of a gripping murder-mystery tale.

It's six years after the end of Austen's classic novel, and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Rhys, The Americans) and wife Elizabeth (Anna Maxwell Martin, Bleak House) are happily raising their young son on the Darcys' familial country estate.

On the eve of an annual ball at Pemberley, guests have begun to arrive and last-minute preparations are taking place at a frenzied pace. The festive atmosphere is shattered, however, when news of bloody mayhem in the nearby forest arrives at the Darcys' front door.

Two distinctly uninvited guests -- Elizabeth's flighty youngest sister, Lydia (Jenna Coleman, Doctor Who), and her detestable cad of a husband, Wickham (Matthew Goode, The Good Wife) -- had intended to crash the party, but their journey to Pemberley was interrupted when a travelling companion, who had been arguing with Wickham en route, bolted from the carriage into the forest and, soon afterward, was found in the underbrush with his skull caved in.

Darcy dutifully summons the local magistrate to investigate; it's quickly determined that Wickham is the prime (and, indeed, sole) suspect in the murder.

Using James' sequel-ish novel as their foundation, screenwriter Juliette Towhidi and director Daniel Percival have created a lovely and fully enthralling story that melds the obligatory costume-drama class-struggle details with a sharp and pleasantly wit-testing mystery.

There's much at stake as the investigation, carried out by longtime Darcy-clan enemy Sir Selwyn Hardcastle (Trevor Eve), unfolds. Wickham, while not of the Darcy bloodline, has a connection to the family that could put its fortune and estate in peril if the scandal of a murder conviction should envelop it.

And while all this is going on, Darcy's sister Georgiana (Eleanor Tomlinson) is under pressure to choose prudently between two suitors seeking her hand in marriage -- their cousin, the dashing (but somewhat shady) Col. Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), or the less-flashy but more dependable barrister Henry Alveston (James Norton).

Choices must be made, and truths must be unearthed. The Darcys' good name depends on it.

What makes Death Comes to Pemberley extra special is the manner in which the bond between Darcy and Elizabeth is shown to have evolved. They are still very much in love, but the practicalities of ongoing upper-crust life and the pressures of this suddenly arrived tragedy put a decided strain on their relationship. Rhys and Maxwell Martin do a note-perfect job of portraying two people struggling mightily to maintain the one thing that truly matters while everything else spins out of control around them.

It is, on every level, great fun. And despite a last-minute twist that some might consider a bit convenient, Death Comes to Pemberley will give both mystery lovers and costume-drama aficionados all the Brit-accented entertainment they require.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

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Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.