Review: Gentleman Jack Episode 1 (2019)

Gentleman Jack is a new period drama from HBO, a modern riff on the venerable “novel of manners” adaptations (like Vanity Fair and Sense and Sensibility) that are the bread and butter of the costumed drama world.

That means a return to the bucolic countryside of mid-nineteenth century England. This time, it’s 1832, and we’re in West Yorkshire near Halifax, peering in to the lives of a family of oddballs from the landed gentry. As one would expect from HBO, the costumes, sets, and cinematography can only be described as “sumptuous.”

The big twist here is that our main character, Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones) is a lesbian who chafes under her society’s restrictive gender norms. She’s a clever, talented woman in a time and place that doesn’t reward those virtues, especially when they manifest in such “masculine” talents.

When we meet our protagonist, she’s just returned to her estate after a lengthy absence. She immediately sets to work getting her affairs in order. When necessity demands it, Miss Lister shows no hesitation in putting on her overcoat and top hat and riding out to collect rents herself. She’s an astute businesswoman and an unsentimental landlord whose reception in the world has obviously hardened her. She can’t be who she wants to be, and it chafes. Her own family, especially her sister, don’t quite know what to make of her.

At the same time, her return coincides with the arrival of some fresh faces on the estates, including an enterprising young man named Samuel Washington (played by Joe Armstrong, who I remember from the silly classic Robin Hood) and a troubled young heiress named Ann Walker (played by Sophie Rundle). Also, Ann Walker’s aunt is played by Stephanie Cole, the beloved aunt of the eponymous protagonist of Doc Martin. Great to see her in this role, although we’re a long way from modern Cornwall!

The episode has some great dialogue – fast-paced back-and-forth dialogue – and the whole production has a frenetic energy that’s buoyed further by a great soundtrack. The subtitles accurately describe the music as “jaunty” and I love it. The modern sounds may take some people out of the period, but I enjoyed it – it made me think of the great music in The Favourite – probably the best period film of the year.

The series takes place amid debate over the Reform Bill, which is a great political backdrop and a source of tension between the diametrically-opposed Lister sisters. And let’s not forget: Miss Lister is a landlord. It’s a safe bet that we’ll be getting quite a bit of class-struggle as the narrative advances. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next, especially now that I know Anne Lister was a real person!

Bottom-line: 8/10 – Great first episode, setting the stage for a very interesting series.

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