Cranford is a world of women in the 1840's, Amazon women as Mrs. Gaskell described them, not in physical strength but in strength of character and in the power to run their village the way they like it. Look out men! All classes are represented in this film, from the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, down to Harry Gregson, the little poacher from a family of squatters. Mainly though, it is the fairly genteel ladies of the middle class who populate these stories. They have not much money with which to uphold their position in the town, but frugality is a virtue with these ladies. The men are here to move plotlines, but the ladies are the stars, with the possible exception of Phillip Glenister as the fascinating Mr. Carter and the hunky Simon Woods as the socially clueless new doctor in town (and most eligible bachelor), Mr. Harrison.
This adaptation is a veritable who’s who of British actresses. Notable among them are Dame Judi Dench and Dame Eileen Atkins as the unmarried Jenkyns sisters and Lisa Dillon as their younger savvier relative Miss Smith, regularly upstaged by Imelda Staunton as the hilarious Miss Pole. The rest are too numerous to name but you can more easily state who is NOT in this production. This is a mini soap opera of lovely vignettes with little dollops of humor and a few heartbreaks as well. Love lost, love found, misunderstandings and realizations, and a few cute little anecdotes, like the cat who swallowed the lace collar (and how it was retrieved), make this a lovely visit to a different time and place.
The acting is unsurpassed and each of the actors seems to help and support the others whenever their story is not the main plot. A true collaborative affair, this one will get into your bones and make all but the hardest hearts alternately laugh and cry. We also now have the second installment, done as a Christmas/New Year’s special in 2009, Return to Cranford. We get to revisit Miss Matty and her friends, and the opening shot of Miss Pole’s feather bobbing down the street starts us out on exactly the right foot.
The BBC can now rightfully take credit for a revival of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels, from Wives and Daughters to North and South, and now Cranford. Thank goodness she has been rediscovered. And there are a few left to do, like Mary Barton and Ruth and Sylvia’s Lovers, although they mostly cover her slightly darker topics. This one is just lovely and yet has a bit of depth as well. Nice job, BBC. Now anyone for Cranford III?