The period drama is a tired, suffocating subgenre that rarely offers tantalizing subjects. Anglophiles this side of the pond find solace in the grandeur of Masterpiece Classics’ Downton Abbey and Victoria or the sweltering seduction of Poldark. After some time, though, these set pieces and stories run out of breathing room with the corset of genre tropes weighing heavily on the torso of its structure. But that’s not the case with Gentleman Jack.
Donned in a long suit coat with a top hat, whirling a cane to and fro, and walking with a Victorian swagger all her own, is Anne Lister. The HBO series is based on her collective diaries, which consist of roughly 4 million words and are written, dominantly, in her own secret code. As sly and wry as it is seductive, Gentleman Jack takes the sumptuous period setting and lays its focus in sardonic, quick-witted dialogue and intoxicating performances of nuance and poise.
There’s a kind of predisposed stuffiness that comes with the period drama. Take last year’s own historical offerings of Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite. The former plays the period drama to the standard tune, even up to the swelling music and stoic final movement of its orchestration. The costumes are glamorous, the language poetic. Now, let’s shift, dear reader, to what I believe is the more honest feature. The Favourite doesn’t simply relay a true historical drama set in palaces with lace and wigs strewn hither and thither, but it offers what I believe to be a more accurate representation of the vulgarity often hidden beneath layers (and layers, and layers) of colors, lace, and corsets.
Gentleman Jack offers something similar to The Favourite in its bawdy confidence provided by a pristine performance by Suranne Jones. Coupling a provocative worldliness with tender vulnerability, she wears many hats – most specifically her top hat – throughout the series. With three episodes under the waistcoat, Gentleman Jack doesn’t seek to subvert the period piece drama but injects the subgenre with a verve all its own. Right from the off, audiences can gauge this isn’t the standard period fare. Hopping down from atop a carriage having driven it herself, Anne opens the door for her maid, who stumbles out, vomiting. In a blink, Anne stares the camera down, offering commentary and sardonic observations. It tickles, a giddy delight, and the best part is it doesn’t end there.
Throughout the one-hour episodes, we get a chance to peer into Anne’s mind, gaining her perspective on her family’s estate, Shibden Hall. It’s a rather dimly lit, dreary place, where sweeping camera movements of the grounds and grandeur are exchanged for closely following the backs of characters and taking a center seat at the dinner table as if we’re the main course.
But it’s not just the wryness of Anne Lister offering quips to the tune of some pretty bop-worthy orchestrations as she carries herself from room to room. Gentleman Jack effortlessly commentates on sexuality and gender roles, with Anne parsing off her own thoughts.
On top of its already masterful writing, the creatives behind Gentleman Jack serve Anne Lister’s story with such care as to allow her to have the last word. In Anne, there is a vulnerability for every affectionate joint. Often commented on as “odd” or “man-like,” the greatness of Gentleman Jack lies in its dynamic exploration of Anne’s sexuality; her previous relationships, her potential future loves, it’s all handled with a gentle intimacy while also being so matter-of-factly explained.
What’s more, Gentleman Jack subverts the standard period piece gender-commentary letting circumstances play out with Anne taking the reins. Her sharp, fair conduct of business as the tax collector for the residents on her family’s land is so quick, you have to keep up. The snide asides made by the men under her gaze aren’t surprising; it’s already surmised we know these types of men. The series doesn’t stand atop a soapbox in its proclamation or lamentation of how women, specifically queer women of higher rank, are treated in Victorian England. Instead, Gentleman Jack invites us to sit amongst the fine folk in their drawing rooms and listen in on Anne’s grand plans for love and profession.
The series is such a fabulous concoction of period drama and inquisitive character study. Jones cultivates a leading character who is fervently lived in, showcasing a veneer of vulnerability between her confident exterior. The series, thus far, has seamlessly woven between elements of drama and comedy, all the while giving Jones the reins with which to steer this carriage. It’s decadent and engaging, thoughtfully exploring desire and love with nuance and capturing intimacy with a gentle touch.
I, therefore, implore you, dearest reader, to brew yourself a kettle of hot water. Take from the cupboard your teacup of choice. Oh no, no, no not that one. That simply won’t do for the kind of company we’re having. Now choose your tea; Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Twinings, take your fill. Perhaps a scone with some clotted cream and raspberry preserves to settle you. We’re expecting a guest, you see. No, she isn’t here to collect the tax; we’ve paid, handsomely. It’s Anne Lister, and she’s dropping in for the tales of Gentleman Jack.