Dan Savage called it a slow moving pbs special-like show. Nah Dan, the sex you’re looking for will probably have to be interpreted; the tempo is there from moment one.
Gentleman Jack is Sally Wainwright’s absolute passion project borne out of her discovery of and deciphering portions of Lister’s journals which include Lister’s detailed descriptions of her sexual encounters. This review covers episode one.
Gentleman Jack’s first episode is very good. It’s immediate dive into Lister’s take them by the short hairs persona is no small part of what’s so great about Sally Wainwright’s show. Her clothes, her stride, she with her father sitting silently beside her in the pub collecting rents standing up to meet the disrespectful man tenant nose to nose, assuring he will honor his contract (the nose to nose stance is one of my favorites about the character). That Lister seems to be a respected member of society is something unexpected for the 19th century setting and it’s fantastic to see. So Dan’s assessment of this being a slow moving show might fit if he’s talking about the mode of the other characters in the show, but it feels intentional. Everyone around Anne Lister is moving so; well, 19th century, while Anne moves at a pace we can hardly keep up with in every situation, shown with such clarity during her family’s dinner together after she comes home – Anne; intent on having what she wants, doesn’t ask or wait for anything on the table to be passed to her, she stands, grabs, sits, eats. And throughout, Wainwright’s break in the fourth wall is a terrific addition to this show.
Lister, acted brilliantly by Suranne Jones, is met by us with a wide range of emotional depth. Layers of emotions are a human experience. Most reviewers are focusing on and describing her interest in wanting a wife as a core tenet of a show filled with fantastic promise. Ok, that’s fine, the sex will bring viewers to the screen and yes, I’m here for it too. I personally enjoy her ebbs and flows of anger. So far the one characteristic distasteful to me is Lister’s seeming predatory behavior toward Ann Walker when Lister considers her to be a stupid person – I’ll give it an episode or two because I know the turn it’s going to take and maybe that flash of predation is my interpretation but…I don’t like it.
I also love Anne and her mother’s relationship. Her mom is the absolute product of the time but finds her daughter to be perfect. Anne’s first night home, her mom tells her she knows they’re “not very interesting” Anne’s response “it’s not you and it’s never you” – is beautiful as Anne can’t bring herself to tell her mother what happened between her and her soon to be married to a man lover. They fall into a conversation about Ann Walker’s wealth – but the duality of this scene is Anne’s sadness, and her mother soothing her.
One episode in and I can’t get enough of Gemma Whelan as Marian Lister with her eye rolls and her admonitions to Anne at every turn. It’s a relationship I’m looking forward to seeing. She’s fantastic.
I’ll keep watching. I know there is creative license as I wonder if the life of Lister was as boldly loud as the show insinuates. She had to be risking so much in her day to day life. I think the scene with her mother I noted above might be part of the answer: she lived loudly and discussed cautiously outside of her diaries.