Three BBC miniseries adapted from Mary Gaskells classic novels. Cranford, a market town in the North West of England, is a place governed by etiquette, custom and above all, an intricate network of ladies. It seems that life has always been conducted according to their social rules, but Cranford is on the cusp of changeâ€¦ North & South follows Margaret Hale, the daughter of a middle-class parson who uproots the family from rural southern England to start a new life in Milton - a northern mill town in the throes of the industrial revolution. Wives and Daughters is set in a richly portrayed society well-stocked with eccentric nobles and gossipy villagers. The well-ordered world of 17-year-old Molly Gibson becomes complicated when her father, a respected country doctor, remarries after many years of widowhood. Cranford
Adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, the five-episode miniseries Cranford
focuses on female characters in the 19th-century British town to thematically contemplate encroaching modernity in rural England. With the camera roving house to house, each drama within the grander story is constructed of scenes featuring dialogue between several gossipy ladies obsessed with moral code, romantic ideas about courtship, and social occasions. Three main characters, the ever-appropriate Deborah Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins), her sweet sister, Matilda (Judi Dench), and their younger, more savvy relative, Miss Smith (Lisa Dillon), continuously weigh in on situations, providing a dependable view when other ladies, like the nosey Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton) are too judgmental. In fine period dress, the women of Cranford
remind the viewer of how little action was needed in their small-town lives to provide unceasing entertainment. The series'most intriguing aspect lies not in the ample female conversation but rather in its display of earlier technologies and ways of life. Part One, for example, quickly launches a main narrative thread that runs throughout the series, namely the arrival and assimilation of London doctor, Frank Harrison (Simon Woods), into village society. Dr. Harrison's medical practices, such as his refusal to amputate a man's arm because it's broken, are all the more radical because they are so fundamental by today's standards. In subsequent episodes, he recommends Miss Smith get spectacles to cure her headaches, and saves his love's life by cooling her fever after conservative doctor, Dr. Morgan (John Bowe), recommends the old school practice of burying her in blankets in front of a raging fire. In Part Two, Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) throws a garden party at her estate, treating all the women in their fancy hats to a new novelty: ice cream. This scene foreshadows Ludlow's future concern at a railroad plan involving her land that would connect Cranford to Manchester, symbolizing the ruin of this idyllic setting.
In fact, fluffy and clever as some scenes are, death and rebirth assert themselves in each showing, both physically and idealistically. Part Four shows an auctioning off of a deceased man's antiques, and focuses on issues of class and women's education, as Mr. Carter teaches a peasant boy to read while his assistant fumes at her trappings as a seamstress. Part Five ushers in a new period of medical emergencies, securing Dr. Harrison's shaky position in town. In total, Cranford offers a powerful, if sentimental, look at how death begets life, love, and passion. --Trinie Dalton
North & South
North & South is a splendid, four-hour adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's 19th century novel about an unlikely, and somewhat star-crossed, love between a middle-class young woman from England's cultivated south and an intemperate if misunderstood industrialist in a hardscrabble, northern city. Daniela Denby-Ashe plays Margaret Hale, forthright and strong-willed daughter of a former vicar (Tim Pigott-Smith) who relocates his family from a pastoral village outside London to unforgiving, largely illiterate Milton, a factory town where John Thornton (Richard Armitage) and his mother (Sinead Cusack), survivors of poverty, rule their cotton mill with an iron hand. Thornton befriends Margaret's father but incurs her wrath for his severity with his workers. What she doesn't notice is Thornton's core sense of responsibility for his employees' welfare. On the other hand, he misinterprets some of Margaret's own actions and intentions. Equally stubborn, the two drag out their obvious attraction over many painful months and events.
North & South's two leads are both very good, though Armitage's brooding, penetrating performance may very well be considered a classic one day. There are other wonders in the cast: Cusack and Pigott-Smith are superb, and Brendan Coyle is memorable as a firebrand union organizer who ultimately becomes an ally to a softening Thornton. The miniseries script by Sandy Welch is a persuasive mix of historical context and character study. Brian Percival's direction is full of moments that linger in the imagination, such as the winter-dream look of a busy cotton mill, with thousands of snowy fibers floating in the air. --Tom Keogh