Following her return to Shibden Hall, Ann Lister (Suranne Jones) decides to restore her ancestral home’s ailing fortunes and to court Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) a wealthy heiress who feels constrained by her family.
However, Miss Lister’s attempts to reopen her coal pit come up against stiff opposition from the Rawson brothers, Christopher (Vincent Franklin) and Jerimiah (Shaun Dooley) who have been stealing coal from Anne’s pit. Deciding that the best way to succeed is to pit the Rawson’s off against rival coal agent James Holt (George Costigan), Anne and Samuel Washington (Joe Armstrong) set a figure that sends both parties into a fit of peak. Meanwhile, Anne’s attempts to seduce Miss Walker appear to not have the desired effect that she envisioned that they would. Yet, realizing that she has to seize the day after attending the wedding of Vere Hobart (Jodhi May) to Captain Donald Cameron (Andrew Watson) Miss Lister follows Miss Walker to the Lake District.
The second episode of Sally Wainwright’s chronicle of the life of Gentleman Jack continues to fizz like vintage champagne, tantalizing the taste buds and encouraging the viewer to drink in more. Wainwright’s characterisation of the various players is perfectly spot on. With her introduction of Vincent Franklin as arch-villain Christopher Rawson, the series goes up a notch. Both the writing of Rawson’s character and his portrayal by Franklin could easily have slipped into pantomime territory – rather the combination of Franklin’s outstanding acting and Wainwright’s precision engineered writing ensure that Rawson is far more interesting than that.
Wainwright’s utilisation of Lister’s life to its fullest allows the series to be both a love story and a frantic industrial drama. There are lovely moments throughout the second episode that Wainwright gives great emotional heft to – from the opening scene with Miss Walker and Miss Lister talking alone to John Booth’s (Thomas Howes) rather wistful moment of wondering whether he could marry Eugénie Pierre (Albane Courtois), Wainwright allows her characters to express their emotions powerfully. She allows time for scenes with emotional power to them to play out, such as the scene in which Anne Lister suggests Miss Walker might be in love with her. Many dramas today zoom along at such a speed that they don’t allow room for the drama to breath; Sally Wainwright’s genius is that she allows her drama to march along at an engaging pace yet ensures that the story has time to enter into the minds of her characters.
Suranne Jones gives another excellent performance. Jones’ portrayal of Lister is a multi-layered masterpiece; Lister can be both stiff and sensitive within a couple of minutes. Jones understands how to play with audience expectations and her seductively powerful performance keeps the audience’s attention throughout the episode. She struts across the scene with such confidence and energy that it is easy to be swept in with her story. Her performance is not simplistic – Lister is both haughty and arrogantly aristocratic and yet sensitive and loving. Jones is particularly effective in her initial standoff with Christopher Rawson – she brings out all of Lister’s passion and determination that no one, no matter how powerful will stop her re opening her coal mines.
Sophie Rundle gives a wonderfully sedate performance. This isn’t to say it is lacking in emotion but rather that she understands how to allow Ann Walker’s feelings for Ann Lister to develop naturally. There is a certain giddy energy lurking beneath Rundle’s portrayal of Ann and it is one that not only endears the audience to her but also makes her relationship with Miss Lister seem realistic and understandable – Ann Walker is trapped in a world where nobody really respects her or allows her to explore herself until she meets Ann Lister and Rundle knows exactly how to bring this out in her character.
Sally Wainwright’s engaging and at times intimate directing helps to bring alive this episode. Wainwright, whose ability to bring dramatic scenes to the screen delighted us with that in the previous episode and thus demonstrates her ability to film much more sensitive and intimate scenes in this episode. The scenes with Anne Walker and Anne Lister are done perfectly and Wainwright’s utilisation of close shots and close-ups highlights the intimacy and tenderness of the discussions between Walker and Lister. She also knows how to perfectly shoot Lister’s breaking of the fourth wall, which rather than jarring feels like a natural part of the drama.
The second episode reinforces what many audiences felt when watching the first – that Gentleman Jack is a tightly written, brilliantly acted and superbly directed series that brings alive one of 18th century Yorkshire’s most engaging and interesting characters. It is a drama that will be remembered for years to come as not only groundbreaking but incredibly enjoyable too.
Gentleman Jack Continues Sunday at 9.00pm on BBC One.