Cranford (review)

Small-Town Girls

I’m not sure that I was expecting anything from Cranford other than the usual twee pleasures of British costume drama, which are, for me, quite delightful indeed: cute guys in great clothes, beautiful women moping beautifully, some snarky subtextual tweaks at the aggression hidden by polite manners, and lovely English accents and cups of tea all round. So, you know: that would have been more than enough.
But this… this is liking adding a wee dram to those cups of tea. Oh, sure, Cranford — the title refers to the fictional small town in the northwest of England in which novelist Elizabeth Gaskell set the three 1851-3 books upon which this miniseries is based — has everything you’d expect, the clothes and the accents and the assam served in the good china. It’s the little extra dollops of jolt that make it sheer perfection. The exquisite balance between satire and honesty. The startling sexual frankness. The even more startling overt feminism. It’s not so much what you’d expect from a story written a century and a half ago, and seeing it now is a poignant reminder of how little some things have changed.

Because, look: We’re wondering today where all the women are in the larger discourse of our pop culture. And so of course it’s good to find something like Cranford, which is crammed full of a fantastic female cast — Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Eileen Atkins (Evening), Francesca Annis (The Libertine), Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), Julia Sawalha (Horatio Hornblower: Duty) — and is as smart about women, whatever the century, as it is a biting anti-tribute to how women are forced to carve out their own spheres of power wherever they can find them. (And it’s the creation of women, too: not just Gaskell’s books but producers Sue Birtwistle [the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride & Prejudice] and Susie Conklin, and screenwriter Heidi Thomas [Lilies]. Not that I would wish to exclude all the menfolk involved, either, such as directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson.) But then it also makes a gal want to snark: Well, hey, why is it okay for us to tell stories about women as long as we limit ourselves to the limitations we force upon them? For this miniseries — unquestionably glorious as it is — is about a group of women forced to contend with circumstances not of their making, in a culture they cannot escape, while still retaining their sanity as people.

So we have, as these five hour-long episodes commence, spinster Deborah Jenkyns (Atkins), the uncrowned etiquette queen of Cranford, a genteely destitute woman who maintains her dignity by being the dragonlady of manners: no one dares behave improperly while she’s looking. Or if she might hear of it. Because that’s the power that the ladies of Cranford hold: the power to gossip about you, whether you’re male or female, should you behave badly. This kind of particularly female power is not disdained in this tale, as it typically is, but is acknowledged as a perfectly reasonable way for a woman to distinguish herself when all other options are off the table for her. So as the ladies of Cranford scurry about telling tales about the comings and goings — there’s a very exciting one as the story opens when a handsome young bachelor doctor (Simon Woods: Penelope) arrives in town — there’s as much nodding appreciation for their intelligence and their enterprise as there is humor at how they go about expressing it, underscored by performances — especially from Staunton, who is simply a goddess — that are both jolly and wise.

Nothing remains simple, though: Deborah comes across as forbidding at first, till we see that her correctness and solemnity mask a far deeper — and more more genuine — care than we’d believed of her. And yet the needs of men are not foisted off, ignored, either: the wonderful Philip Glenister (Life on Mars) is particularly noteworthy as the manager of the manor of the local aristocrat (Annis), whose affections and concerns turn on some most unexpected events.

Cranford debuted last fall on TV in England, just finished airing on PBS Masterpiece this past weekend, and now it’s on DVD. This is as good as this kind of thing gets. Don’t miss it.

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