A “Pride and Prejudice” sequel/murder mystery? That alone should be a sufficient come-on to rouse English-lit majors and awaken “Masterpiece” viewers, but “Death Comes to Pemberley” — a two-part movie adapted from P.D. James’ novel — has the extra advantage of being perfectly cast and extremely entertaining, even for those who might need a Jane Austen refresher course. The whodunit, frankly, takes a backseat to simply luxuriating in the atmosphere, as Anna Maxwell Martin and “The Americans’” Matthew Rhys portray one of literature’s most famous couples, with Matthew Goode as Wickham, the amiable rogue who nearly came between them.
The story begins six years after the aristocratic Darcy (Rhys) swept the poor Elizabeth (Maxwell Martin) off her feet, and she has become the lady at his sprawling estate. Of course, the path to true love in these environs is always complicated, though that discomfort here falls to Darcy’s sister (Eleanor Tomlinson), who is presented with two viable, and rivalrous, suitors.
Still, the central couple’s idyllic existence is suddenly thrown for a loop by a murder in the woods, one that implicates Wickham (“The Good Wife’s” Goode), who remains a peripheral if irritating part of their lives, reluctantly, via his marriage to Elizabeth’s sister Lydia (Jenna Coleman). At this point, Maxwell Martin could probably use some help from her “Bletchley Circle” mates, as both Elizabeth and Darcy find themselves sifting through clues pertaining to what really happened.
While the murder plot could easily have overwhelmed the material — turning this into some corseted, 19th-century version of “CSI” — writer Juliette Towhidi and director Daniel Percival’s adaptation manages to deftly putty in gaps, employing flashbacks to loop this follow-up back into the original story. They have also captured the strain that cultural mores place on an independent spirit like Elizabeth, creating conflict between her and Darcy without undermining their now-mature romance.
As usual, the wealth of available British talent also enables the producers to feature top players in relatively modest roles, from Trevor Eve as Hardcastle — a longtime antagonist of Darcy’s, who conducts the investigation — to Rebecca Front and James Fleet as Elizabeth’s parents.
Airing on successive Sundays with each chapter running a brisk 83 minutes, the project is the latest addition to a “Masterpiece” lineup that’s doing a lot more than just killing time between editions of “Downton Abbey,” although the grand estate, sweeping country vistas and subplots involving the Pemberley servants can’t help but scratch that itch to a degree.
Granted, not all of the franchise’s “Mystery!” entries in particular merit its lofty moniker, but this is one production in which everyone involved can rightfully take pride.