“Vulgar sentiment is so contagious.”
After the wonderful BBC productions of North and South and Wives and Daughters, I was a bit disappointed in Cranford. Based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford centers on life in a small Victorian English village. The acting in this mini-series is marvelous, the sets wonderful, but it’s disappointing in a lack-of-substance-Disney-meets-Victorian-England sort of way.
Some of the action concerns spinster sisters–circumspect Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and quiet Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench)–major fixtures in the village of Cranford. Since Cranford is a community dominated by women, the arrival of Dr. Harrison (Simon Woods) a young, handsome and unattached doctor sends many of Cranford’s spinsters atwitter with romantic fantasies. Cranford is a hotbed for gossip, largely fueled by the overactive imagination of Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), and Dr. Harrison’s courtship of a local lass, leads to a great deal of consternation for poor Miss Caroline Tomkinson (Selina Griffiths).
The village copes with the hysteria of French-paranoia, disease, poaching, various romances, stray Valentine’s cards, and even a wandering cow. In this bucolic, unrealistic setting, everyone has a second chance to repair their lives, and this includes Miss Matty’s revived romance with aging suitor Mr. Holbrook (Michael Gambon).
If you are the sort of person who recoils from the sentimentality of Dickens, then Cranford will, at times, make you cringe. Victorian England was a cruel, indifferent place for the poor, but in Cranford, humanity prevails in sugary, unrealistic fashion. Some of the very best sequences however concern Lady Ludlow (played exquisitely by the marvelously serene Francesca Annis). A widow who’s outlived all but one of her children, her youngest, Septimus, lives abroad and writes home only to request money. Lady Ludlow’s scenes are visually very different from other scenes in the film–dressed in greys and silvers, she seems bloodless, drained of life in opposition to the robust colour explosions of the countryside. Her fantastic home, while breathtakingly beautiful appears to be a lifeless mausoleum–especially when compared to the quaint, comfort of many of the village dwellings. Many of the villagers are caricatures, treated with affection by the script while Lady Ludlow is by far the most interesting character study in the film. Several scenes emphasize her opposition to the education of the peasants, and she refuses to employ anyone who can read and write. On one level, Lady Ludlow represents a long-lost era about to be challenged by the intrusion of the railroad and the revolutionary notions of education for the masses. Lady Ludlow’s belief in keeping the masses in their collective place, sets her in complete opposition to her manager, Mr. Carter (Philip Glenister) who actively encourages Harry Gregson (Axel Etel) the engaging, bright son of a local poacher. But in typical Cranford fashion, even Lady Ludlow has a chance to redeem herself on the way to a bittersweet lesson in humility.
For fans of British television costume drama, Cranford is very entertaining if you can just suspend some of the more over-the-top twee sections, but I prefer Wives and Daughters and North and South by far.