Elizabeth Gaskell may not have the marquee power of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, but if the three-part BBC- and WGBH-partnered Cranford is any indication, there may well be an olde-but-new game in town.
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Spinster sister: Dame Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns
Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens, made her name with controversial tales that sought to relay the human cost of industrialization and crushing poverty as she witnessed it in her time. But her true popularity with 19th-century readers was cemented with the Cranford stories: witty, tender entertainments about eccentric village women, which read like gossipy anecdotes but slyly doubled as robust portraits of female independence and solidarity. But these lighter stories didn’t entirely abandon her social concerns; they also acted as snapshots of a quickly changing era. Gaskell’s Cranford is a northern-England bastion of rural composure and “elegant economy,” where the wise prudence of energetic widows and spinsters rules.
“A man is so in the way in a house,” one of Gaskell’s women intones, and, sensing that, the men steer clear. As for the encroachment of modernity, there’s hardly time to roll your eyes at London ways when there’s the bustling nearby commercial center Manchester to worry about.
The adaptation for PBS’s Masterpiece series by producer Sue Birtwistle (who brought us the hallowed 1995 Pride and Prejudice) and writer Heidi Thomas is a glorious feather in the bonnet of British period dramas. A merging of three different Gaskell novels — Cranford,My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions — it does a nifty job of stoking the pleasures of reveling in a lost time while satisfying a need to see something richer and more meaningful done with this kind of enterprise. It may be a joke in Cranford that lit candles of uneven levels are a no-no, and that the newest silks available at Mr. Johnson’s store are already out of date elsewhere, but the grand narrative’s examples of friendship, charity, love and reconciliation — sometimes naturally achieved, sometimes hard-won and tinged with tragedy — are so effortlessly warming, funny and poignant, they seem to breathe new life into this most venerable and all-too-easily stodgy of “quality” television genres. And on a purely visceral level, the digestive misadventure with an expensive lace collar and a mischievously hungry cat wouldn’t be out of place in a gross-out teen comedy.
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Plus, it’s got a heavyweight cast that any story past or present would kill for, one in which the appearance of acting institution Judi Dench is only a fraction of the overall power. Her Miss Matty Jenkyns, a spinster forced to abandon her true love when she was a young woman, lives in quiet companionship with elder sister Deborah, Cranford’s sternest keeper of the flame of tradition, played by Eileen Atkins. Dench is expectedly magnificent, always hilarious when she gasps over a shock to her sensibilities but never without an air of quietly nurtured heartsickness over the emotional gaps that have defined her character’s life. But the towering performance belongs to Atkins, who turns her large, versatile eyes into such evocative signals of tough affection, authority and sly tenderness that she hardly needs her already-commanding voice as well, but as a package it’s marvelous, and strangely comforting. The two actresses, however, are often matched by the vigor of the community around them, from Imelda Staunton’s shit-stirring information disseminator, Miss Pole — for whom no amount of frilly head wear can muffle the power of eavesdropping — to Julia McKenzie’s kind, slightly batty cow-tender, Mrs. Forrester, and Lisa Dillon as the Jenkyns sisters’ newest charge, Mary Smith, who has returned to Cranford to escape her marriage-pestering stepmother, and whose fiercely intelligent eyes often act as our compassionate entry into the drama of the town.
There are men, of course, and their appearance tends to spark that drama. One is the introduction to Cranford of a handsome, genial, young and single doctor named Mr. Harrison (Simon Woods), who arrives on a white horse, no less. And while he contributes farcically to an increased heart rate among the town’s women, he also advocates newer medical practices he believes will reduce the need for amputations and quainter remedies. Causing talk as well is the arrival of kind widower Captain Brown (Jim Carter), with two grown daughters in tow (one of them played by Ab Fab’s Julia Sawalha), who eventually gains respect from the likes of Miss Deborah, until his business intentions — tied to the impending, feared railway — are revealed. The railway will directly affect the vast estate of Lady Ludlow (the fantastic Francesca Annis), whose chilly condemnation of the attempts by her steward Mr. Carter to educate a poor local poacher’s son is never presented as a Dickensian evil so much as a lonely woman’s misguided, musty sense of how the rich help the unfortunate. (Give them menial jobs to feed them, sure, but not the tools to motivate them for something better.)
It’s safe to say that perhaps Cranford’s overriding theme is the conflict between modes of duty and obligation, and how our drive to care for others can be a source of both comfort and hand-wringing distress. Although Cranford is directed by Simon Curtis with the kind of effortless storytelling drive and eye for beautiful detail that honors the genteel mix of comedy and drama it comes from, you might be surprised at just how much hardship — physiological, emotional or financial — upends all Gaskell’s characters: the poor, the middle class and the well-off. These stories have happy endings, for sure, but they are made all the sweeter, perhaps, by everyone’s ability to deal with the death and grief that are, as usual, any community’s least-welcome visitors.
CRANFORD | PBS | Sundays, May 4, 11 & 18 | 9 p.m.