A two-part sequel to the original 2007 BBC mini-series "Cranford", RETURN TO CRANFORD (2009) is just the thing when you're in the mood for one of those leisurely-paced, low-key, and excruciatingly genteel British period dramas. Of course, it does take it awhile to get started, at least for someone not familiar with Cranford and its inhabitants. But it's one of those things that I think is going to be a real bore by the looks of it, then find myself getting caught up in.
It's 1844, and the sleepy village of Cranford is poised on the brink of progress as the new railroad approaches, with the citizens split between those who welcome it and those who fear the changes it will bring to their lives. These include retired shopkeeper Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) and the eccentric widows and spinsters who comprise her circle of friends. One of them, the diminutive Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), is never without her beloved cow, which she treats like a child and even makes clothes for.
It falls to wealthy landowner Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) to decide whether or not to sell land which is needed by the railroad, while also dealing with his son William (Tom Hiddleston), who defies him by wanting to become an engineer instead of a politician and also by falling in love with a commoner named Peggy (Jodie Whittaker), whom he plans to marry. Their illicit Romeo-and-Juliet romance is one of the most moving elements of the story, as is the tragedy that befalls a young married couple and their child whom Matty regards as family.
These are but some of the many subplots which slowly weave their way throughout RETURN TO CRANFORD and form a richly rewarding narrative that deftly alternates between subtle humor and tragedy. It's nice to see Judi Dench shed her stiff "M" persona and give such a warm performance as the kindly Miss Matty, who provides a common thread throughout the various parts of the story. Her efforts to solve the railroad dilemma have her likening herself to Pandora before it's over, especially when a train crash brings many of the subplots together with tragic results. During this sequence, the slow-paced parlor drama gives way to some real excitement as the dark side of progress descends over Cranford.
Much of the show's humor comes from how amazed or horrified the conservative people of Cranston are when they encounter anything new or exotic. The waltz, that modern dance in which the man and woman actually face each other, is often invoked in whispered tones. When the ladies take their first train ride, Miss Pole warns everyone not to watch the scenery flashing past at 30 mph lest they burn out their retinas. The arrival of a traveling magician, wonderfully played by Tim Curry, is cause for much delight and trepidation.
On a show like this, "gags" tend to be on the subtle side. Here's an exchange that takes place after Miss Pole has received the gift of a parrot from Miss Matty's brother Peter:
"Mrs. Forrester, reach for the Chronicle and spread it on the floor."
"But, there is a piece about the Princess Royal on the topmost sheet. We should not want to see that soiled."
"Then turn it about. Mr. Peel is on the reverse--we care not what falls on him."
When Miss Pole attempts to order a fancy birdcage from France, what happens next is probably the most overtly funny thing that happens. But again, the humor in this show comes naturally from the characters and their situations, and nothing is played for cheap laughs. The ladies themselves provide much amusement simply by attempting to be so terribly proper at all times.
In addition to Dench, Pryce, and Curry, the cast is uniformly good. I was pleased to see Francesca Annis as the frail Lady Ludlow, whose refusal to sell her land to the railroad is undone by her greedy son Septimus (Rory Kinnear). Other standouts include Imelda Staunton as Miss Pole and Barbara Flynn as the snooty Mrs. Jamieson, who travels around in a sedan hoisted by servants.
Exterior filming took place in a small village which, with a little alteration, is a beautiful stand-in for the quaint, pastoral Cranford. Production values are first-rate right down to the finest details in costuming, set design, and props. Script and direction are also fine.
The DVD from BBC Warner, which contains two ninety-minute episodes, in in 1.78:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 English stereo and English subtitles. A half-hour documentary, "Cranford in Detail", contains cast and crew interviews and much information about the production.
Just the sort of high-quality fare that the BBC is known for, RETURN TO CRANFORD is an exquisitely detailed look at the joy and heartbreak of smalltown life in Victorian England, when people were poised between the past and the future and weren't sure which way they wanted to leap.