Nineteenth century British author Elizabeth Gaskell never really attained the renown of Charlotte Brontë, the woman Gaskell wrote a biography of, in what remains probably better known than many of Gaskell's apparently slight works of fiction. I say apparently slight, because Gaskell's style, though couched in a seemingly mundane and trivial manner, actually has a raging torrent of profundity coursing beneath its surface that more often than not reveals deep truths about the human condition. Cranford, a sterling BBC adaptation of several of Gaskell's works placed in the mythical northern English village (modeled after Gaskell's own childhood town of Knutsford), recreates both the day-to-day trifles and the undying deeper truths of a town, a la "Brigadoon," seemingly removed from the encroaching ravages of time and change.
If you looked up "actor's piece" in the dictionary (if a dictionary indeed even contained such an entry), there could be no better definition than Cranford. Featuring an absolutely amazing assortment of veteran British actors, including Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Francesca Annis and Imelda Staunton (just for starters), the miniseries retains much of the episodic nature of Gaskell's writings, while simultaneously attempting to knit together various storylines into a cohesive whole, giving an incredible range of thespians ample chance to strut their stuff throughout various anecdotal moments. This vastly charactered piece begins by focusing on two spinster sisters, Matty Jenkyns (Dench) and her elder sister Deborah (Eileen Atkins), who have just found out their neice (Lisa Dillon), whom they haven't seen since her childhood, has been banished from her home by her step-mother for refusing to marry and is coming to Cranford to relive the haunts she frequented with her now dead mother. The series then branches out from the Jenkyns to quickly introduce the many quirky characters who inhabit Cranford, chief among them the town's resident gossip, Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton). The status quo, something held in extremely high regard in Cranford, is also put to an early test when a new, young doctor (Simon Woods) arrives to aid the town's aging physician.
In fact, the entire miniseries can be seen as an exercise in the dialectic between tradition and an unstoppable motive of progress, strangely similar (in an Anglican way of course) to Fiddler on the Roof. The status quo stalwart is best personified, at least in the early episodes, by Deborah Jenkyns, brought surprisingly sympathetically to life by Eileen Atkins in a simply marvelous performance. While the comedic elements of Miss Deborah's character are never far from the surface (a running gag has her correcting her servant's "someone's at the door" announcements by repeatedly proclaiming, "Someone's at the door, Madam"), Atkins imbues Deborah with a certain dignity and decorum that prevents the character from being a parody, even when confronted by such patently absurd to modern sensibilities "traumas" as eating an orange in public. Dench's Matty willingly takes a back seat, at least early on, to Deborah's pronouncements, but when a figure from Matty's past appears in the second episode, and then a devastating development quickly follows, Matty soon finds it necessary to chart her own course. Dench does some really spectacular work here, infusing Matty with a simple, yet nurturing, soul that nonetheless has some significant pain in her background.
Chief among Cranford's comedic pleasures is the inimitable Imelda Staunton, who absolutely and literally gallops through her role as Miss Pole. You can virtually see Pole's blood pressure rise as she becomes party to various rumors (and actual facts at times) swirling about the town. The internet could not deliver information faster than Miss Pole, and several downright laugh out loud moments are courtesy of Staunton's expert delivery (my favorite being her hysterical "We are in the throes of an emergency of the highest order," after a cat swallows some highly valued lace). In fact, it's fascinating to note that Cranford is pretty much run by the women, giving Miss Deborah one of the funnier lines of an early episode, where you would think her reserved and etiquette-conscious character might defer to male superiority (I won't spoil the punchline for you here, but you'll know it when you hear it).
There is a wealth of subplots woven into the basic strand of village life, each of them uniquely touching in their own way. We get newcomer Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha, creating a character about as different from her Absolutely Fabulous Saffron as could be imagined), who fears she has consigned herself to spinsterhood after repeatedly rebuffing her beau's proposals. We also have the romantic and medical adventures of dashing new Doctor Harrison (Woods), who simultaneously attempts to bring some modern healing techniques to the town while wooing a young girl whose family is visited by a medical tragedy of its own. There's also the town's noblewoman, Lady Ludlow, an aristocratic semi-bitch ably portrayed by Francesca Annis, whom many Agatha Christie fans will remember as Tuppence from the Partners in Crime series of yesteryear. Ludlow's chief lands-master also takes on an illiterate adolescent poacher and decides to help teach him to read (against Ludlow's wishes, who believes the working classes should remain uneducated, something with which the working classes themselves seem to concur, strangely). And finally there's the redoubtable Michael Gambon as a mysterious stranger who has some initially unknown history with Miss Maddy. Against all of these dramas the arrival of the railway posits both fear and opportunity to various townspeople in equal measure.
Cranford is highlighted by a sumptious physical production, bringing an 1842-43 village to ample life. Sets and costumes are absolutely first-rate, with the frankly shocking primitiveness of life at that time depicted without any sanitized patina. There's also a sweet and discreet chamber music underscore by Carl Davis, which also utilizes some nice source quotes from various sources including folktunes and Mozart. Screenwriters Heidi Thomas and Sue Birtwistle do an admirable job of painting each character clearly and keeping story momentum even with frequent stops for various subplots to momentarily take over. But it's the performances that set Cranford head and shoulders above the usual "Masterpiece Theater" stodginess. With ample opportunity for both comedy and drama within its five episodes, Cranford provides one bravura moment after another, with every actor in its storied cast rising to the moment with spectacular results. Even if you tend to shy away from these character-driven historical pieces, I can pretty much guarantee you will be enchanted by Cranford's loving recreation of a pivotal moment in English village life.
A very nice enhanced 1.78:1 image is full of good, if at times muted, color, with excellent crispness and clarity. There were some extremely brief though surprising moire patterns at times on such unusual items as a woman's checkered blouse, but nothing that detracted very seriously from a generally top-notch visual presentation.
A DD 2.0 mix is the only audio option, sporting completely clear dialogue and the beautiful and charming underscore of Carl Davis. Separation and fidelity are both above average for a television production. English subtitles are also available.
An approximately half-hour Making Of featurette offers some nice on-set footage and interviews of various cast members and production crew.
If you've ever wondered what English village life circa 1842 might have been like, Cranford provides a remarkably detailed depiction. But there are also timeless human truths revealed throughout this heartfelt series that transcend any given time period and give the series a universal appeal that makes it worthy of any discerning viewer's time. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet