An adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's classic novels about an 1840s Victorian English village, Cranford teems with life and is packed with subtle, engrossing performances. Dame Judi Dench plays Matilda Jenkyns, a sweet and slightly timid spinster who is part of the pack of middle-age, middle-class women who rule the small northern village. Their acknowledged and somewhat feared leader is Matilda's sister, the decisive Deborah whose rulings in every matter, from how one should eat an orange to whether women should attend funerals, carries the force of law.
What Cranford does so lovingly is show the tender hearts that often lurked behind these formidable Victorian exteriors. Deborah is so rigid about the rules of propriety that she won't allow her servant girl to have "followers," and she rues the day the railroad will come to Cranford; the trains will bring not only change, Deborah sniffs, but "noise, disease and the Irish." Yet Deborah also notices the broken heart of a new neighbor, the daughter of a retired Army officer, and does all she can to engineer a match for the woman.
The lively, gossiping women of the town, especially the excitable Miss Pole, dominate every event, large and small. And though their adventures are sometimes played for laughs (as when a cow goes missing), Cranford doesn't settle for merely satirizing Victorian life. The fine script depicts the women of the town with complexity and compassion, and the men don't get short shrift either, though they have to have commanding presences to compete with the formidable women of the town.
The doctor's sweet, tentative wooing of the rector's daughter has unexpected moments of tragedy, but the most affecting scenes are of Dench and Michael Gambon as two former lovers who had lost track of each other for decades but meet up again. Unlike some of Masterpiece's recent historical dramas, Cranford depicts their rekindled relationship without forced melodrama and with admirable restraint. The problem with the Dench and Gambon scenes is that there aren't nearly enough of them.