For us pedestrian types who skipped Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th century novels — a cross between the romantic whimsy of Jane Austen and brooding Victorian class-consciousness of Charles Dickens — “Cranford” takes a little getting used to. After a rocky opening installment, though, the remainder of this five-hour miniseries — which PBS will spread over three weeks — settles into something moving and wonderful, showcasing a veritable who’s who of British acting talent resembling the staff at Hogwarts and anchored by the splendid Judi Dench. When “Cranford” reaches its zenith, British costume dramas don’t come much better.
For these purposes, there really is nothing like a dame, and “Cranford” boasts two knighted ladies: Dench and Eileen Atkins. They play spinster sisters circa 1842 in the quiet but frightfully gossipy little hamlet of Cranford, where the arrival of a handsome young doctor (“Rome’s” Simon Woods) and an approaching railway each provide a bracing threat to the local, female-dominated township.
“Cranford has been disturbed by you,” Woods’ Dr. Harrison is told, which, given the web of misunderstandings and crossed signals that follows, qualifies as a decided understatement.
So much is going on at first that sorting out the sprawling cast of characters proves initially baffling. Suffice it to say that Dr. Harrison immediately sets his sights on the beautiful but poor Sophy (Kimberley Nixon), while all the local busybodies speculate about potential objects of his affection. Indeed, one single woman experiences convenient fainting spells whenever the good doctor happens to be near.
On a more sober note, there is death, loss and fear of change, as well as considerable pining for loves lost (or never found) and opportunities squandered. What makes “Cranford” richer than the recent Austen adaptations that “Masterpiece” has delivered is the multigenerational aspect of this longing, such as in the case of Dench’s Miss Matty. Courted as a lass by Mr. Holbrook (Michael Gambon), of whom her family disapproved, she recounts the painful history — and why she never married — in a firelight soliloquy that’s only one of her several lovely moments.
The plot and tone, admittedly, bounce around quite a lot — from romance to drama, tragedy to near-farce. Yet the performances are so consistently first-rate (among them Imelda Staunton as the status-obsessed Miss Pole and Francesca Annis as the imperious Lady Ludlow) and the payoff so sweetly worthwhile, it’s easy to forgive whatever shortcomings that preceded it.
Written by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, “Cranford” proceeds at a leisurely pace meant to evoke the era and bucolic setting, which Gaskell modeled on a rural town where she spent her childhood near Manchester. All of those trappings are simply impeccable, from the costumes and lush countryside to Carl Davis’ score.
“Haste has never been our hallmark, Miss Matilda,” Holbrook says ruefully at one point.
There’s nothing hasty about “Cranford,” either, but it’s equally true that very little of the time spent there will feel wasted.