Call the Midwife - Season Two
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $44.98 // June 18, 2013
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 5, 2013
Highly Recommended
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The highly rated, critically lauded series adapted from the same-named (and partly fictionalized) memoirs of Jennifer Worth (nee Lee), Call the Midwife (2012-present) returns for another season of compelling episodes. Created by producer-writer Heidi Thomas, whose short-lived revival of Upstairs, Downstairs had similar qualities, Call the Midwife likewise offers rich characterizations and intriguing, historically interesting stories and situations.

Call the Midwife - Season Two expands upon season one, with eight 60-plus-minute episodes compared to six just-under-an-hour shows the previous year. Also included is Call the Midwife's Christmas special, a 75-minute program set between the two seasons and which aired in Britain on December 25, 2012, about a month prior to the new season's premiere.

Spread across two Blu-ray discs, Call the Midwife Season Two offers excellent audio and 1.78:1 high-def video, along with a good behind-the-scenes featurette.

Interestingly (or, distressingly if one watches PBS these days), the packaging notes "Exclusive 10 Additional Minutes per Episode." I assume this means, as with other British shows, PBS is editing episodes of Call the Midwife, presumably to fit a particular time-slot. Why a supposedly commercial-free public television network would feel compelled to do this is beyond all reason.

As before, Call the Midwife is set in Poplar, an alarmingly poor section of London's East End, where in the late 1950s midwife nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) has joined Nonnatus House, an Anglican nunnery based on Worth's real place of employment, Whitechapel's Sisters of St. John the Divine. (Many American viewers seem confused as to whether Jenny herself has taken vows, but the show makes perfectly clear several times that no, she has not, nor have several other of the nurses.)

Narrated by Vanessa Redgrave as the older Jenny (and always quoting directly from Worth's book), the show traces her steady adjustment to life among the poor, usually following her adventures in an "A" story while a secondary "B" subplot follows one of the other nurses or one of the nuns, and sometimes either or both stories parallel their situations with various expectant mothers and their husbands (or their lack thereof).

The show is supremely well acted by its mix of young and veteran talent. In addition to Raine's sensitive portrait of Jenny, making the strongest impressions are comedienne Miranda Hart as Nurse Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley "Chummy" Browne, a comically towering, awkward young nurse with an upper class background; Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris, Rosemary & Thyme), a short-tempered, no-nonsense nun and midwife particularly annoyed by the eccentric, increasingly senile behavior of elderly Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt, the Nicol Williamson Hamlet, also ER); and Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter, The Railway Children, Walkabout, Logan's Run), the diplomatic, sensitive but rock-solid mother superior.

Rounding out the cast are Helen George as fun-loving blonde Nurse Trixie Franklin; singer Laura Main as Sister Bernadette, who falls in love with widower and single-father Dr. Turner (Stephen McGann); tiny, emotionally fragile Bryony Hannah as Nurse Cynthia Miller; Cliff Parisi as handyman Fred; and Ben Caplan as PC Peter Noakes.

The Christmas special and series two premiere find the newly married Nurse Chummy and PC Noakes enjoying wedded life, but she feels a religious calling to missionary work, and that tests their relationship. Sister Bernadette's feelings toward Dr. Turner come to a head, while Nurse Cynthia, blaming herself for the death of a newborn, falls into a deep depression.

Partly, Call the Midwife's appeal is lost on many American viewers, unaware just how accurately it captures London's East End transitioning from an almost dark, Dickensian life for its poor and toward a much better existence thanks in no small way to socialized medicine and Britain's National Health Service. In the Christmas Special episode, Jenny cares for a destitute old lady, Mrs. Jenkins (Shelia Reid), and as the story unfolded I was shocked to learn that workhouses of the type Ebenezer Scrooge famously said the poor must go or die "and decrease the surplus population" were still operating in Britain as late as 1930, and continued in a half-dismantled form as late as 1948.

Miranda Hart's Chummy, absent from some of the middle shows here, stands out particularly and was deservedly nominated for a BAFTA TV award. As noted in my Season One review, her character is one of the most endearingly and authentically awkward women I've seen in years and, as the cliche goes, an instant classic.

Ferris is amusingly disagreeable but also realistically supportive and caring, her character highlighted in the funny, touching season premiere, which finds her and Trixie aboard a Swedish cargo ship where the captain's full-figured daughter has been gamely servicing the crew. But all of the acting, across the board, is excellent.

Video & Audio

The eight, hour-plus episodes, along with the Christmas special, are presented across two single-sided Blu-ray discs, with each show in excellent and apparently unaltered 1080p widescreen transfers. The Dolby Digital stereo, English only and accompanied by optional SDH English subtitles, is state of the art.

Extra Features

The lone extra is a good one, a 30-minute featurette, also in high-def, about the show's origins and midwifery in general. Though it serves to promote the series, it's also unusually well made for such things.

Parting Thoughts

If you liked Call the Midwife before, chances are you'll embrace this fine continuation. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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