Does this bustle makes Judge Kristin Munson's butt look big?
"All around us, England shifts and changes, but Cranford stands fast. Its women are like Amazons and to those that live here, it is the world entire."—Mary Smith
Elizabeth Gaskell was the wife of a village rector and the mother of five children, which was not unusual for a woman living in the mid-1800s, but she was also an accomplished author. She was quite friendly with Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, but when it came to novels Gaskell, was in a literary league of her own, writing stories about everyday people that also had a deceptively sharp bite.
PBS' latest Masterpiece co-production weaves together three Gaskell novels under the banner of Cranford, sharing a year in the life of a small English village and the effects the changing social landscape have on its unconventional inhabitants.
Facts of the Case
Gossip isn't just a hobby in the town of Cranford, it's a way of life. Mary Smith has returned to her mother's hometown to escape her stepmother's attempts to marry her off, only to discover she has swapped one meddling woman for a village's worth. There's the temperamentally mismatched Jenkyns sisters (Judi Dench, Iris and Eileen Atkins, Cold Comfort Farm) who take Mary into their odd little household. The opinionated Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake) is a one-woman news broadcast, and the biggest story in Cranford is the arrival of the new physician, Doctor Hamilton (Simon Woods, Rome), who is young, modern, and extremely single.
As in every close community, everything is everyone else's business, but that isn't always such a bad thing. When times are at their bleakest, you can always count on the people of Cranford to pitch in and pull through.
For my very first Verdict review, I had Clatterford: The Complete Season One, abut life in an eccentric and female-centric English village. I think the exact way I described it was, "a tea cozy for the soul." Well, here I am, several months and many reviews later and with a very similar disc on my docket, only this time the program is less irreverent, and there's a heavier dose of tragedy to go along with the period costumes.
Cranford is a character-driven piece, and the stories in the miniseries mostly revolve around culture clashes between the young and old, breaches in etiquette, and the marriage game. Gaskell had very strong, and very progressive opinions about class and gender that make the Victorian story feel fresh and modern, and add some unexpected twists to the formula. Unlike Dickens, who liked to kill off characters for maximum social impact, the stories here never depend on melodramatic twists or impossible coincidences to make a point or get to a happy ending. Cranford also isn't above some slapstick moments, so long as they stay true to the characters' individual personalities. It's anything but a dusty drawing room drama
Gaskell's characters are never as simple as they appear, and who is likable or loathable can change in an instant. The idea of an educated lower class disgusts Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis, Revolver) so much that she refuses to hire any servant who can read but, even with her estate hemorrhaging money, she won't make cutbacks because she feels responsible for the livelihood of every person who works there. Each character has their own hypocrisies and foibles that make them a perfectly flawed person and a compelling thing to watch. Even the more comic characters like Mrs. Jamieson and the lovesick Caroline have serious moments that mark them as human. They're all part of the elaborate tapestry of love and loss, strength and hope, that make up a typical small-town community.
I'm not exaggerating when I say Cranford boasts a Who's Who of British drama. From period staples (Barbara Flynn Miss Potter), to faces from cult favorites (Julia Sawalha, Absolutely Fabulous), to the child actors (Alex Etel, Water Horse: Legend of the Deep), there's scarcely a scene where you can't recognize someone. When the weak link in your dramatic chain is Judi Dench, you're in good shape.
BBC Video presents Cranford in its original five-episode format and restores all the footage that PBS lopped out. Most of these scenes aren't pivotal to the plot and don't add much to the overall story, but they do expand the characters, and once you know they're there, you feel their absence. A nice but bland "Making Of" is included on the set, along with subtitles, which is good because the 2.0 stereo doesn't pump much power to the dialogue track. The anamorphic transfer is also several notches above what you saw on TV, colors are richer and more vibrant than in the Masterpiece airing, and it's easier to see the details of costumes and sets.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The three novels don't always mesh as smoothly as they could, and it often feels like the fight between Lady Ludlow and her steward over the education of his impoverished errand boy takes place in a different universe from the other stories. The series also has the unfortunate habit of dropping plot points entirely except when using them to tie in the separate narratives. The coming railroad, which has everyone worked up in parts two and three, is completely forgotten by four and five, until a big event is needed to throw all the characters back together in time for the finale.
Cranford takes some of the best talent Britain has to offer and turns it loose in a period setting with a winning script that puts some hustle in the ladies' bustles. Gaskell purists might sniff at the story changes, but the streamlined adaptation makes for a richer experience. While the extras aren't spectacular, the chance to view the program uncut and in its original format is a better sweetener than any bios section.
Complicated characters and elaborate costumes? Of corsets Not Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• The Making of Cranford
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