Eighteen months have passed since the U.S. got its first glimpse of “Cranford,” a five-hour miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels about an idyllic if surprisingly bustling little 19th-century hamlet. The scaled-down sequel brings back Judi Dench and another truly gaudy assemblage of British acting talent, surrounded by rolling green hills and adorned in stately period frocks. Following the ins and outs of the myriad plots ultimately proves secondary to simply luxuriating in the atmosphere of this “Masterpiece Classic” presentation, which once again establishes Cranford as a lovely place to visit.
Not quite so dark as Dickens’ tales or as flowery as Jane Austen’s, the original “Cranford” erected several impediments to the happiness of the female-dominated town but finally came around to plenty of happy endings. Set in 1844, “Return to Cranford” picks up largely where that story left off, while introducing new concerns about the intrusion of a railway and another pair of star-crossed lovers separated by money and status.
Leading us through these stories is Dench’s Miss Matty, who, having squandered her own youthful chance at love, harbors a grand appreciation of its beauty through misty, knowing eyes. As such, she takes great interest in young Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), a poor girl who catches the eye of William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), whose wealthy father (Jonathan Pryce) has more lofty ambitions for his son.
Meanwhile, a young boy (Alex Etel), whose path seemed secured in the first production, is in danger of being cheated out of his inheritance, while the local ladies are positively indignant about one of their number deeming them ill-suited companions for a high-born new arrival.
It’s a good thing the woman who slighted them left, Miss Octavia (the delightful Imelda Staunton) harumphs, because, “I was about to say something quite sharp and sarcastic.”
Again adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis, “Cranford’s” rhythms take some getting used to, but by the second hour, the threads of the plot begin taking shape, and there’s simply nothing that does concern about appearances and manners, coupled with romantic longing, quite like a British costume drama.
Set to Carl Davis’ lilting score, “Return to Cranford” has much in common with that feared railway — chugging along like a well-oiled machine. It’s just that this one runs on a mixture of charm and whimsy that makes “Masterpiece” an increasingly rare commodity.