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'Gentleman Jack' Explores the Fascinating Life of Anne Lister

Gentleman Jack Premiere Still
Wim Snape and Suranne Jones star in HBO's "Gentleman Jack."

The series premiere of “Gentleman Jack” aired on HBO April 22, establishing itself as one of the more unusual dramas recently produced, both in premise and in execution. The sweeping English countryside and swaggering music sets the tone for the introduction of a no-nonsense protagonist. Donning black garb and a top hat, Anne Lester isn’t your typical period piece English lady.

The series centers around Anne (Suranne Jones), an outwardly stoic and scrupulous woman hiding the secret that she’s a lesbian. The series is based on the diaries of the real Anne Lister, who detailed her various relationships in entries written in code. These diaries were only decoded long after her death in 1840. She is a bold and pragmatic character, especially considering the world she lives in: 1832 Halifax, England. Following a fall out with her former lover Vere Hobart (Jodhi May), the premiere sees Lister returning to her family’s ancestral home, Shibden Hall, in order to oversee the financial well being of her family estate. She is informed of the land’s potential as a profitable coal mine and begins to form a strategy to exploit her holdings. She also becomes interested in a young woman living in a nearby estate, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), and makes plans to win her heart.

The episode weaves a dizzying array of emotion, spinning from one startlingly emotional moment to one nearly devoid of it. One moment, the focus is on Lister’s romantic past when she is heartbroken and lost, while the next sequence snaps the viewer back into the cold, empty halls of Shibden.

It is unclear what message the series plans to convey. Suranne Jones’ Anne Lister may be intended to represent a feminist or BGLTQ icon, which would certainly be fitting given the historical nature of the character, and the secret life she lived. Or, in what seems a more likely scenario, Anne Lister may serve as a character study, intended to examine a unique historical character, with the series interpreting her life through a fictional lens. Given the plot details of the premiere, however, the overall direction remains unclear.

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The pilot serves its purpose well. The plot takes a firm stance on the overall character of Anne Lister, but leaves ample room to develop her further. She is calm yet troubled, stoic yet tender, straightforward yet secretive. The episode is keen to draw on her troubled romantic past, but the character and her romantic aspirations are not over-sexualized. The scenes where the audience sees Anne Lister at her weakest and most vulnerable are powerful, albeit brief.

As she says in one of the first scenes, “I’ve been an Icarus, I’ve flown too near the sun. And now I crash back to Earth at Shibden, shabby little Shibden.” Yet even in the glimpses of Lister’s inner anguish, Suranne Jones executes these moments wonderfully. With that level of performance in the pilot, future episodes will hopefully take advantage Anne Lister’s emotional range and give Jones the opportunity to showcase her abilities.

The showrunners have set the plot in motion, with the dual storylines of Anne’s romantic ambition with Ann Walker and her business undertaking with the family coal. There are, however, plenty of room for the story to grow in several directions and enough characters introduced for intricate subplots to develop. On that note, it will be interesting to see how “Gentleman Jack” develops the minor characters that surround Anne. Will they fill out the plot, providing effective contrasts and contributing their own to the overall tone of the show? Or will they simply serve as pawns for Anne to push her way through, merely remaining as background noise in Anne’s quest for purpose?

Undoubtedly, there’s a lot going on in this episode. Taking into account the mass of potential storylines and subplots, it’s a staggering body of screenwriting. But if the show can sufficiently explore Lister’s backstory and produce a round character, then “Gentleman Jack” has the potential to cement itself as one of the more unique examples of a period drama.

— Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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