“Nature played a challenging trick on me, didn’t she?”
Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) first utters this sentence with an arch amusement, but over the course of Sally Wainwright’s new drama “Gentleman Jack,” she repeats the sentiment with pride, exhaustion and defiance. Living in 1832 Halifax as a lesbian with a penchant for sweeping black suits and top hats, Anne both knows and resents the fine line she has to walk in order to live as freely as possible. In public, she leans into the role of proprietor of her family’s coal mines, leveraging the power of owning a valuable resource over the many snide men who would love nothing more than to dismiss her out of hand. In private, she softens considerably in the company of engaging young women, nursing a fierce hope that one day, one of them might reject her predetermined, patriarchal duties and become a loyal partner to her instead.
The story of Anne Lister is extraordinary — and, it must be noted, rooted in reality. The real Anne Lister (nicknamed “Gentleman Jack” for her demeanor and love of black suits) was a prolific writer who left behind many, many diaries detailing her life that have proved to be invaluable resources as rare historical documents of what it meant to be a gay woman in the 19th century. (To protect the most explicit details, Lister wrote much of the diaries in a code that has since been broken.) In her writing, she revealed herself to be clever and sly, willful and frustrated, yearning and more romantic than even she might have liked to admit. Adapting these diaries into a show that can dig into her life, how it affected those around her, and queer history in general is a smart idea that immediately breathes life into the oft-repetitive period drama genre.
Still, those familiar with Lister’s diaries may be surprised to hear that Wainwright chose to focus on her relationship with Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), the meek and wealthy woman who would eventually become Lister’s common-law wife, rather than Marianna Lawton, the conflicted love of Lister’s life who left her behind to marry a man. In eschewing a perhaps more passionate affair for one rooted in a desire to settle down, Wainwright makes an intriguing choice that sets up a decidedly adult romance about devotion, trust and partnership that is rare for TV in general, let alone for lesbian characters in a period piece.
For the most part, it pays off. Jones and Rundle are wonderful together, each making the absolute most of every emotion Wainwright’s scripts throw their way. And perhaps unsurprisingly for a production that was written and directed entirely by women, their intimate scenes are never gratuitous, and often preceded by thoughtful discussions about what being intimate to them truly means. Both their giddy joy at being together and their pain at reconciling it with the outside world are palpable in just about every scene.
The trouble with “Gentleman Jack” is that for all its confidence in scenes of Anne issuing blistering comeuppances to unworthy men and gorgeous declarations of love to hesitant woman, it’s unsure how to go about everything else. With a full hour to fill per episode, the show makes glancing attempts to flesh out the remaining characters that never quite connect. Anne’s aunt and sister come the closest to stealing focus, largely thanks to sympathetic portrayals from Gemma Jones and Gemma Whelan, respectively. But the simmering dramas of the people who work for and around Anne suffer from a lack of connection to the overarching story — even when the show throws in a startling murder to spice things up.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of “Gentleman Jack,” however, is that it frequently doesn’t seem to have a handle on Anne herself. Early episodes attempt to connect directly to her with stylistic choices like a voiceover using quotes from Lister’s diaries and having Jones turn directly to the camera with winks both figurative and literal. These don’t disappear completely, but fade out enough that it’s disappointing to see the show back off potentially rich opportunities to translate Anne’s interiority, which inspired the entire series after all, to the screen. What’s more, the show presents her initial courtship of Ann Walker as a seduction, with Anne musing both in voiceover and to the camera that she could use a pretty, rich wife to take her to the end of her days. As they get to know each other, her practical stance appears to shift into true affection — but it’s hard to know for certain after the show fazes out those direct glimpses into Anne’s mindset. Without a firmer grip on its remarkable central character, “Gentleman Jack” meanders more than it truly focuses on what should set it apart.
“Gentleman Jack” premieres Monday, April 22 at 10 p.m. EST on HBO.