Miniseries Retrospective: "Wives and Daughters"
Updated: Dec 25, 2020
I came to love the style of English Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell last June after completing Cranford, a seven-part BBC dramedy based on three of her novellas. I’m a sucker for any female-oriented costume piece set in the 19th century, and Cranford‘s sweeping tale of an intimate, gossipy 1850s country village in the wake of industrialization (and particularly, facing how the construction of a local railway will change their homestead forever) just floored me. The small town misunderstandings! The nerve-wracking interplay between nobility, middle class folk, and peasantry! Romance and tragic circumstances! JUDI-FREAKING-DENCH IN A BONNET. As my boyfriend stated when first recommending this miniseries to me, “It was a fucking delight!”
Once I learned that other miniseries had been adapted from Gaskell’s work, I knew I had to jump. Thus, my very first miniseries begun in the new year: the 1999 BBC-WGBH co-production Wives and Daughters.
This engrossing four-part serial (based on Gaskell’s eponymous 1866 novel) centers on curlicued adolescent Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell), the plain, free-spirited daughter and only child of the widowed town physician. We learn early on that Molly is considerate, curious, and above all, dedicated to her father (the wonderfully paternal Bill Patterson), though somewhat “rough around the edges” according to the Frittering Local Gossips. They see her as a motherless moppet, adored by her father and the community, but in need of strong maternal guidance.
An unwelcome wake-up call to this fact arrives for Mr. Gibson when he intercepts a love note from one his apprentices to an unaware Molly, and in desperation the doctor sends her to stay the summer at the nearby estate of the Hamleys, a former great family reduced to so-called “genteel poverty.” When Molly returns, she learns to her devastation that her father has suddenly engaged himself to Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick (Francesca Annis), a contemporary whom he hopes will be the perfect mother figure to his daughter. However, this former governess-turned-arriviste quickly reveals herself to be interfering, opinionated, shallow, and vain.
Thus sets the course of the story, which finds Molly struggling to adjust to her new family life while her friendship with the Hamleys (and particularly their son Roger, a sensitive Cambridge-trained naturalist) deepens. Hyacinth’s grown daughter Cynthia (Keeley Hawes) soon arrives from France to shake up the household, and despite her opulent affectations and capricious nature, she and Molly find themselves in an opposites-attract best friendship. When Cynthia’s mercurial flirtations lead to a rash engagement with Roger, Molly must swallow her hurt, especially as she becomes entangled in the intrigues of her stepsister’s secret past, which require her to defy her father to save Cynthia’s heart and reputation.
Waddell, in the first role I’ve personally seen her in, expertly anchors Wives and Daughters, imbuing Molly with verve, vulnerability, and moral aptitude among a who’s who ensemble of British talent. Cranford acolytes will recognize Annis, here playing a warm-blooded and needy social climber light years from the chilly, melancholic aristocrat Lady Ludlow in that series. (Her Hyacinth may be irritating, but Annis doesn’t allow the audience to hate her.) You may also remember Hawes as Kitty Butler, the unattainable object of Nan’s sapphic affection in the 2002 BBC miniseries Tipping the Velvet. The actress’ grace elevates Cynthia from a mere flibbertigibbet, injecting enough soul into the role of her mother’s neglected daughter that you understand why Molly never falters in her love for her stepsister. Haven’t we all had that friend who disappoints, but never with malice?
Fans of film and television from across the pond will recognize a number of faces. From Downton Abbey there’s Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) as the kindly Mrs. Hamley and Iain Glen (who played Sir Richard Carlisle, but remains Jorah Mormont to most), forever playing the rakish chump who will never get the girl. Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice eventually cast two veterans from this serial: Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins), portrays prodigal Osborne Hamley, whose hidden life threatens to besmirch the Hamley name and Gone Girl herself Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet) as vivacious Lady Harriet Cumnor, a local noblewoman who takes a keen interest in steadfast little Molly Gibson from the first moments of the series.
Best of all, world class and ever-game Michael Gambon delivers mightily as Squire Hamley, Roger and Osborne’s loving but irascible father whose zero-sum-game treatment of his son alienates them both well into adulthood. When tragedy strikes, Gambon transforms Hamley in his grief from a hardened martinet to a humbled man eager to reclaim the family he nearly lost. He also delivers my favorite line of the series to Mr. Gibson: “Your wife and I didn’t hit it off the only time I ever saw her. I’m not saying she was very silly, but one of us was very silly and it wasn’t me.”
If you loved Cranford or are craving a lighthearted but meaningful period story that may or may not end in a happy romance, take five hours to invest in Wives and Daughters.
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