The premise of Gentleman Jack will at first seem familiar to fans of historical drama: In 1832 Halifax, a wealthy and well-traveled landowner returns home and sets about to starting up a coal mine and taking care of local injustices while falling in love with a lovely heiress who has (until now) sworn off marriage. Can’t you just feel the pull of romance upon the moors?
Except in this particular case, the wealthy landowner happens to be a woman, which gives Gentleman Jack a unique perspective on both the time period and gender politics. The protagonist, Anne Lister — known among the folk songs of the region by “Gentleman Jack,” though was more likely to be called “Fred” by her lovers — is a real-life figure who kept copious diaries, the most salacious parts of which were, until recently, hidden by code. Her story is a fascinating one, as she essentially lived as a man would without actually styling herself as one. She just happened to be a strong-willed, exceptionally intelligent woman who was a lesbian and wore a lot of black.
HBO’s eight-episode series (in a co-production with the BBC) comes from Sally Wainwright, best known to U.S. audiences for her two Yorkshire-set series featuring complex female protagonists: Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. Wainwright’s style is that firstly of authenticity to this northern England locale, but her characters also have a very believably conversational way of speaking. That may sound obvious for a television script, but it isn’t — in Last Tango in Halifax specifically, Wainwright captures the cadence of daily conversations (often about mundane of logistical things) punctuated by daily dramas. The actors, then, are really left to infuse the interactions with their own energy and inflections, leading to really outstanding and engrossing results.
The same is true of Gentleman Jack, where star Suranne Jones gives Anne seemingly boundless energy and confidence. She is magnetic and charming, and wields a bright, wide smile that makes you want to trust anything she says. It’s easy to see why so many women fall in love with Anne, and also why so many men are threatened by her. She has a steadiness and sureness that throws off those who are looking to take advantage of the perceived weaker sex, and instead find someone whose wits far exceed their own.
Anne’s reputation — aside from the gossip surrounding her sexual preference (her sexuality is already fully embraced and uncompromised when we meet her) — is that of a woman who is exceptionally smart, capable, and wonderful conversational company. She is tough but fair with her tenants, taking over the duties from her hapless father (her uncle left her the estate, and it’s easy to see why, even though the choice was unorthodox). Still, she vexes her unmarried sister (Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan) for taking off to tour Europe only to return and immediately start imposing her will on the household yet again. But everything in Anne’s life moves at a whirlwind pace, including her seduction of Sophie (Sophie Rundle), the aforementioned heiress, as Sophie herself wrestles with the expectations of marrying a man (as many of Anne’s past lovers have done) versus her true feelings for Anne.
It should be mentioned that Anne may be exceedingly practical, but she is not cold. When we first meet her, she’s heartbroken over her last girlfriend who has married a man. And while she first sees her courtship of Sophie as a kind of dalliance or even an opportunity, she soon realizes that her feelings are deep and genuine, to the point of finding herself completely destabilized by Sophie’s seemingly wishy-washy feelings about a proposal from a male childhood friend.
But for the most part, Gentleman Jack is a jaunty romp, one that is fueled by a folk soundtrack (each episode’s end credits feature the O’Hooley & Tidow’s song of the same name) that gives it a modern aesthetic. At its heart, though, it is a period domestic drama that feels as intimate as any of Wainwright’s other work. Crisp and gorgeously produced, Gentleman Jack stays small and wonderfully detailed in scope, though does somewhat confusingly break the fourth wall when Anne occasionally looks at and comments to the camera — something that is not just reserved for her character. As rarely as its employed, though, it feels like a comedic conceit that was just never fully committed to. The series also weaves in two subplots involving the Listers’ servants and tenants, only one of which is very interesting so far, especially since the overall connection to Anne’s story isn’t quite clear. Still, it makes for diverting drama even if it does feel (as of the first four episodes) like simply a diversion.
Because of the timing of Game of Thrones on Sundays, HBO has scheduled Gentleman Jack for Mondays, but it is in many ways the perfect foil for that other grand adventure. It’s a grand adventure of its own, but one hyper-focused on one particularly unique and rather extraordinary individual. These are not the machinations of kings or even of ordinary folk, but of a woman whose station and interests are more befitting of someone society does not expect or want her to be — and the consequences of that. Gentleman Jack brightly but also quietly investigates Anne’s unusual life with a winning mixture of humor and charm, giving context to modern gender politics by looking to a pioneer from the past. “Proud and stout with standing and clout / She played the fellas at their game / Ambitious of mind, she’s one of a kind / Her devilish ways the men couldn’t tame.”
Gentleman Jack premieres Monday, April 22 on HBO.