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DVD Review: Cranford: The Collection

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Having long been a fan of Regency-era costume dramas that tend toward the romantic, my journey into the small English town of Cranford, circa 1842 — with a passion for the smaller domestic dramas of life — was a fresh and uncharted voyage. Based upon 19th century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, this BBC mini-series is a conglomeration of Gaskell’s adapted novellas; not only Cranford itself, but also My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions.

The town of Cranford in the North West of England in 1842 is poised on the brink of change. Long governed by an unusually high population of older, single women, its culture revolves around propriety and social calls. The slightest hint of change in fashions, residence, or circumstance prompts a torrent of talk. Still, despite the oft-times virulent stream of misunderstandings and troubled times, Cranford is a town with deeply held friendships and strong loyalties.

Cranford: The Collection is a beautiful two-volume boxed set that includes both the original Cranford with five parts on two DVDs, and the two parts of Cranford: Return to Cranford on a single DVD. With each episode running approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, this is no lightweight drama; Cranford: The Collection boasts a total running time of 468 minutes, excluding each volume’s “making of” segment with insights into the writing process, filming, period costumes, and more.

Performed by an absolutely dazzling cast of British talent, Cranford fairly soars on the wings of its talented ensemble. Peopled with many well-recognized actors – Eileen Atkins, Alex Jennings, Michael Gambon, and many others – the centerpiece of Cranford’s heart is Judi Dench’s portrayal of Miss Matty. Dench is absolutely luminous in her tender portrayal of the uncertain, loyal, and incredibly tender Matty

When a new, young, bachelor doctor arrives in Cranford, the residents are atwitter with flights of romantic speculation both actual and unfounded. Dr. Harrison is certainly a central focus of the original Cranford but the complex and rich sub-plots involving Captain Brown and his daughters, the plight of Harry’s impoverished family, Matty’s losses and discoveries, and the lively antics of Mrs. Forrester and Miss Pole create a vibrant tapestry of the timeless concerns of life.

Return to Cranford further explores the lives of the town’s beloved residents though some characters seem to be missing with little explanation. A new set of troubles besets the residents with the rapidly approaching railway, the demise of Lady Ludlow, and the troubled courtship between William Buxton (son of the local salt mine owner) and Peggy Bell. Featuring much of the core cast of the original Cranford some favorites are now missing due to demise or supposed relocation. This second series is somewhat darker than the first, with less outright jollity and absurdity – nothing can replace or supersede the original.

While the core of Cranford’s life is a core of spinsters and widows who thrive on propriety, stability, and social niceties, it would be a misconception to believe that the series is anchored in the lives of the town’s older citizens. Rather, a broad spectrum of players are present from the youthful and romantic to the passed by and disappointed.

The emotional depth of the series encompasses both fresh undertakings and bittersweet reminiscences as seen through the town’s wealth of female citizens. This balanced, broad perspective prevents Cranford from becoming a period Grumpy Old Men for women, and dramatically transcends it, becoming a deeply felt, authentic drama that appeals to all ages; it is truly excellent family viewing.

I regularly discard DVD packaging in order to save shelf space, but Cranford: The Collection is so beautifully packaged that I doubt I’ll be able to part with this sturdy box set. Not only is the box itself sturdier than most, but each DVD case resembles a hardcover book – truly lovely.

A voyage to the reclusive town of Cranford is a richly rewarding experience. The combination of jaunty humor, small-town community spirit, and thrumming emotional undercurrents result in a captivating small-screen experience that rivals that of any large-screen production. It is in the details that Cranford truly comes to life, the small yet meaningful gestures of kind-heartedness, historical authenticity, and care for the smallest nuances. I highly recommend you to experience this special community for yourself.

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