I'm not familiar with the three novella's Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that were the source material for the 2008 BBC production of "Cranford." Nevertheless, that didn't prevent me from enjoying the production in any shape or form. It was in simplest terms, a tightly woven five-part miniseries that followed the lives of the residents of Cranford over the course of one year. What made it work so well was a healthy mix of genuine drama, a dash of melodrama, and some very refined, but occasionally wicked humor, all of which was brilliantly acted by a fine cast. The last aspect had me conflicted in the series' earlier moments, but by the end of the episode, one stomach bursting gag reassured me, it's ok to laugh, despite the stodgy looking exterior.
When I read news that the BBC had decided to return to Cranford for a special entitled "A Cranford Christmas" I wasn't sure what to expect. It sounded like a quick cash-in, but once I popped in the disc, which is now aptly titled "Return to Cranford," my fears were alleviated. "Return to Cranford" may have been intended as a Christmas special, but in reality, it follows its predecessor's footsteps, starting one-year after the former concluded and following the events of the town up until Christmas of the same year.
If you have not watched "Cranford" not only have you missed out on a fantastic miniseries, but to start with "Return to Cranford" is to shortchange yourself on some tremendous character back-story. It is impossible to review this program without talking about that back-story, so if you don't want to be spoiled, check out "Cranford" first.
When we last left our cast, progress, in the form of railroad line, turned Cranford on its ear and into action. The soul of the town, Deborah Jenkyns, passed away and the burden of carrying on tradition fell to her younger sister, Matty (Judi Dench). Romances blossomed, resulting in marriage and birth, while others resulted in tragedy and heartbreak. In the end, the railroad fiasco was averted and life returned to normal in Cranford.
On a surface look, "Return to Cranford" is very unoriginal in its narrative motivations. The railroad once again threatens the town and themes of love and (a little) death make a large portion of the story's backbone. However, the sharpness of the screenplay coupled with the return of a great cast as well as some much appreciated new faces, make "Return to Cranford" just as enjoyable and engrossing. Most of all, the humor returns to lighten the mood between the intense and often depressing turns of events. The humor of Cranford's resident's largely stems from their own views on social standing and penchant for gossip. Fortunately, original director, Simon Curtis returns and keeps things running smoothly. Former cast member, Eileen Atkins pointed out the humor of "Cranford" in an interview noting the original director had to be replaced citing that "he didn't really understand why it was funny."
I would say the humor in this outing is a little more finely tuned and to an outsider can raise the question, "Is it ok to laugh?" Yes, yes it is. One of my favorite lighter scenes in the production showcases the tremendous skill of the cast as town snoop, Octavia Pole (Imelda Staunton) bursts into Matty's home with terrible news. She is visibly flustered, and blurts out that there has been a death. It is news that will instantly elicit sympathy from the audience, but without missing a beat in the same frantic, upset tone, she informs Matty she need not worry about buying a turban, as the magician that is coming to town will likely be canceled. It's moments like these that make Cranford and its residents feel so real.
It's far from being all laughs and jokes though and the threat of the train upsetting their nice, peaceful town forces the more established residents to consider just what they have been trying to preserve all these years. As the town's moral center, Matty gains an ideological counterpart, but social opposite in the form of Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) who brings with him his son William. These characters all help weave a tight narrative web, as William falls in love with a girl of lower social standing. While their stories seem like they could easily be separated from one another, there are vital threads bonding them together and it's a joy to see sequences of pleasantly filmed and acted melodrama turn to more serious intrigue and suspense as important events set into motion are threatened.
It's rather redundant to praise the cast as those familiar with "Cranford" already know how marvelous all the players involved are. Judi Dench shines as a much wiser Matty, stepping up (internally reluctant though) to fill the shoes of her sister. Emma Fielding steps up to the plate as Miss Galindo, defending both Lady Ludlow's interests as well as the future of young Harry Gregson. She remains very convincing in her role, even as the events surrounding it make up some of the weakest parts of the script. You may find yourself frustrated at where Harry's story takes him, but you won't find yourself not sharing Miss Galindo's emotions.
I don't often take time to mention such things in most reviews, but "Return to Cranford" deserves special mention for it's continued high production values. Everything looks real and authentic, without a hint of artificiality manufactured for the camera. The costume makers once again turn in solid work, as do the cinematographers for capturing the quaint, close-knit community, on the border of the traditional privilege represented by Lady Ludlow's estate. The best comparison to it's authenticity I could offer is to "Deadwood," although the camera work is much more grounded.
"Return to Cranford" was a welcome breath of fresh air and as a "Cranford" fan, it felt very natural settling into the lives of all the players. In all honesty, my review only scratches the surface of the production. There's much to be taken from the story and many side plots that I chose not to mention, as some result from events that are easily considered spoilers. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend "Cranford" fans invest three hours of their lives here, it's three hours very well spent.
As BBC/Warner only provided a screener copy of the film, a proper review of the video quality cannot be given. Should a final copy be provided, this section will be updated to reflect the final version.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation of the final consumer copy of "Return to Cranford" features a muted color palette that captures the Fall season that the story takes place in as well as the increasingly dreary mood as the story progresses. The transfer is free of glaring technical artifacts, although detail levels are not as sharp as one might expect. As many scenes take place in darkened interiors, seemingly lit by candles for authenticity, the contrast does appear to be slightly higher than it should and this coupled with the muted color scheme can take a few scenes to get adjusted to.
As BBC/Warner only provided a screener copy of the film, a proper review of the audio quality cannot be given. Should a final copy be provided, this section will be updated to reflect the final version.
"Return to Cranford" sports a solid English stereo sound mix on the final consumer copy. Dialogue is strong and clear, which is extremely helpful for American viewers who struggle with English accents. Despite the dialogue heavy focus of the show, the sound mix does show some unanticipated life during some more lively scenes involving the new railway. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included as well.
The disc sports one, 30-minute making of featurette titled "Cranford in Detail," which is a all too brief overview of the creation of this outing. Much of the cast is rounded up to give their thoughts on the production, as well as that of the crew, getting an opportunity to discuss their areas of expertise. It is a strong testament to the outstanding quality of the final product. The two things that stuck out in my mind as being truly fascinating was how the crew managed to hide the modern improvements to the town in which they filmed, as well as how one crucial scene set in a smoky night scene, was filmed on a very clear, bright day.
"Return to Cranford" is a constant reminder of the notion that television can be a powerful medium for telling a story. It takes a familiar narrative structure (i.e. the previous "Cranford" miniseries) and breathes fresh life into it, answering questions left by its predecessor and raising new ones. It is a shining example of a collaborative effort, from the screenwriters, to the production design, as well as the fine cast, "Return to Cranford" is a rare treat. If there are any future installments in store and the same effort is ready to be put into them, I eagerly await. For the time being, "Return to Cranford" earns hearty, well-deserved praise. Highly Recommended.