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“Im always all right,” says the typically cool-headed 19th century feather-ruffler Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in HBOs (and the BBCs) new series Gentleman Jack (premiering April 22). Its a sharp little line, but also a bit of a dangerous one for a series that is, well, always just all right.

To be fair, Ive only seen the first five episodes; things could heat up in the back end of the season. But so far, Gentleman Jack treads a meandering line—sometimes satisfying but often frustrating, a character study whose central figure remains opaque despite her grand illustration.

Gentleman Jack is not the latest incarnation of some adapted-to-death British classic. Its instead based on the Regency-era diaries of the real-life Anne Lister, an English lady who styled herself in traditionally male fashion (at least from the waist up) and who was not entirely secretive about her romantic relationships with women. (Word is, she was called Gentleman Jack by some, but I cant remember an instance of the nickname being used on the show.) Shes a fascinating figure, and the notion of a television series about her is made all the more enticing by the presence of creator Sally Wainwright, whose grim little crime series Happy Valley is one of the finest TV shows to air this decade. But Wainwrights incisive, humanist, offbeat style is strangely hampered in Gentleman Jack. The show is too busy trying to make us enamored of its heroine to really let us get to know her.

Thats no fault of Joness. A soap star turned lauded television actress, Jones is clearly having a good time stretching her legs—at a mighty strut—in a jaunty period piece like this. She plays her scenes with gusto, navigating both the intrigues of the coal business and behind-closed-doors seduction with peppery verve. Its a funny irony, though, that so much of the admirable work Jones does is necessitated by the weakness of the material. Anne must be so tricky to maneuver! Her whole mien changes from scene to scene, shifting between brittle, hectoring, loving, grieving, conniving. One might say thats a fair measure of a persons entirety, but in Gentleman Jack, all that pivoting instead feels like convenience, like pandering—as if each scene is engineered not so well better understand Anne, but to ensure that well like her.

The show concerns Annes return to her family estate, outside the city of Halifax, and her efforts—based on real life—to restore the manor house and brighten its financial futures. Her ambitions require more capital than she has, so she sets her eyes on Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle, from Bodyguard), a lonely and psychologically frail young spinster whos the sole inheritor of a sizable fortune. But are Annes interests in Ann (yes, it gets confusing) only cynical, opportunistic?

Not really, the show wishy-washily argues. Gentleman Jack has fun, in the beginning, posing Anne as a cold calculatoRead More – Source

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Vanity Fair

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