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Oct 24, 2014 9:47 AM

P.D. James' riff on Jane Austen comes to TV

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) Actors generally are eager for work and a challenge, but Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin admit they were skittish about taking on the lead characters of "Pride and Prejudice."

This despite the fact Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are out of their element in "Death Comes to Pemberley," an adaptation of P.D. James' 2011 mystery novel of the same name that plunges the now-married pair into murder most foul.

The two-part drama airs on consecutive Sundays, Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, on PBS.

The eminent James, 94, was largely applauded for her riff on Jane Austen's much-loved classic. Rhys and Martin, however, saw themselves as interlopers unfit for their famed characters.

"We laughed a lot in that we felt we were both there by mistake," said Rhys. "Anna said, 'I win awards for (playing characters) wearing tracksuits in the projects and here I am playing Elizabeth Darcy.'"

Martin, in a phone call from England, acknowledged feeling "really daunted." She's been seen on U.S. television in U.K. imports including "The Bletchley Circle" and "Bleak House."

"It carries a great weight playing those parts and if you get it wrong, you'll get slammed," she said.

Rhys, who stars in FX's "The Americans," said Darcy's social status gave him pause.

"As much as I enjoy doing accent work, upper-class English is the one that sticks in me," said the Welsh-born actor. "It's not just about an accent, but it affects everything: your deportment, how you hold yourself."

The result is, he said: "I feel incredibly fake and fraudulent."

Qualms aside, both he and Martin carry off their roles with aplomb and wit. As "Death Comes to Pemberley" opens, six years have passed since the courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice," and the couple has settled into life in Darcy's grand estate, Pemberley, and into the role of parents.

Then comes trouble in the person of Elizabeth's loose-cannon sister, Lydia, and her husband, George Wickham, as dashing but shifty as ever. The mystery plays out with James' usual skill at careful plotting and with a bedroom scene discreet, of course that wouldn't have made the 19th-century cut for "Pride and Prejudice."

Any project connected to the novel faces the specter of Colin Firth's brooding Darcy and Jennifer Ehle's sparkling Elizabeth in the 1995 TV miniseries, an enduring hit with, as Martin puts it, "brilliant" performances. A new generation of Austen fans was gifted the swooning 2005 "Pride & Prejudice" big-screen movie with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.

But it's the miniseries that uniquely boasts the wet puffy-shirt scene, in which Darcy takes a quick dip in a pond to cool his ardor for Elizabeth. He then strides manfully if soaked toward a fateful encounter with his true love.

No equivalent was discussed for the PBS drama.

"But we joked about it," Rhys said.





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