It should come as no surprise that any good storyteller would leap at all the imaginative, almost-too-good-to-be-true threads that comprise Gentleman Jack, HBO’s jaunty, funny, smart and touching story set in 1832 about a lesbian who suffered no fools, wore only black (even to — especially to — weddings) and wrote diaries containing 4 million words, a good chunk of them in code that hid the details of her sexual affairs and her one great, true love.
It’s just good fortune, then, that it was the superbly talented Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax) who ended up grabbing this dream project, creating it, writing it and directing it (along with Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott).
Wainwright had wanted to write about Anne Lister for more than 20 years, no doubt because Lister’s story is so intriguing but also because Wainwright grew up near Lister’s ancestral home, Shibden Hall, in West Yorkshire (Yorkshire being a favorite location for Wainwright, including the perfect setting for Happy Valley, her excellent cop show available on Netflix). Wainwright was awarded a screenwriting grant to do further research on Lister and turned that into Gentleman Jack (a term the townspeople used to call Lister because of her masculine features; one of her lovers called her Fred).
Lister was an industrialist, land owner, intellectual, world traveler and — obviously for the early 1800s — someone who didn’t really give a damn about what anyone else thought and was determined to fall in love with and marry a woman, a bold and daring desire indeed.
The particulars of Lister — the fact that she wore only black every day being the easiest to notice, but her willingness to scoff at society, also every day, being the most notable — are not wasted on Wainwright, who strikes gold by casting Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster, Scott & Bailey), who embodies Lister and runs with her (sometimes almost literally, as Lister seemed to waste little time in any day and walked with constant purpose and speed).
A former lover tells Lister, whose travel desires were insatiable, partly because other areas in the world (particularly Paris) were more open to her life, that it feels like Lister is always running away — “from a world that only sees how odd you are and not how clever you are.”
But Lister is not one for sympathy. “I think I’ve only ever run from the banal,” she says. “Banality and mediocrity are the only things that ever really frighten me.”
Gentleman Jack works immediately because the moment you see Jones as Lister, you get it, whether she’s playing off her stuffier sister, Marian (Gemma Whelan — who, by the way, basically plays a Lister-like character, Yara Greyjoy, on Game of Thrones), or pretty much everyone she meets. We only get a sense of her emotional vulnerability by seeing the end of a former relationship (pretty much all the women she loved were married, many having chosen to wed because of societal pressures).
We do see a delighted twinkle in her eye when she first meets Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), a rich, young, sheltered, lonely and misunderstood neighbor (well, you know, on the next estate over), who again almost seems too good to be true as part of the story but is absolutely based on fact.
“She isn’t always as feminine as others would like her to be,” Ann tells a friend who is visiting. “But she’s natural; an original, true to her own nature.”
That she is‚ dynamic of spirit even beyond what’s obvious to the eye with her attire and her bluntness. Jones enlivens Lister’s penchant for individualism, whether it’s walking twice as fast as everyone else, talking to dogs as she passes them or frequently checking her watch when other people are engaged in discussions with her. Because so much of Gentleman Jack comes from the real-life, decoded diaries of Lister, Wainwright makes a creative decision that seems necessary in portraying a time when all of Lister’s most intimate thoughts had to remain private: She lets Jones look directly at the camera and talk to it. She first starts this in a subtle fashion; you might think it’s just an odd camera angle as Jones’ eyes meet the camera oh-so-briefly. But then Wainwright leans into it and, despite being a conceit that so many others use poorly or in a way that stops the drama cold, it’s effective here because the truest and most honest perceptions of Lister at the time probably weren’t actually spoken to anyone else, no matter how direct her character is.
And make no mistake, blunt is the charm here. Lister is constantly being underappreciated and underestimated by men (and women, by the way). In fact, as Lister’s character has been out seeing the world prior to when the miniseries starts, we learn that landowners bordering her own have been stealing coal from her property.
You don’t want to get into coal, the men tell her. It’s a messy, nasty business. But what Lister understands is that it’s also a profitable business. And when men tell her not to do something, it’s generally because they are hiding something from her or, as it soon turns out, are worried that once in the game she will outmaneuver them.
While Lister’s ability to embrace and conquer a world she’s mostly shut out from (even by law) is intriguing, it’s her lust for love (and sex) that are the elements that drive Gentleman Jack. All she wants, she makes clear early on, is to marry the person she desires, the person she loves, and to spend her life with that person.
Walker is both ripe for the taking for someone like the magnetic Lister — and, later, a surprisingly perfect soul mate.
“I worry that person doesn’t exist — not in this life,” says a former lover of Lister’s dream wife. But she, too, underestimated Lister’s passion to bend the world to her wishes.
Cast: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle, Gemma Whelan, Timothy West, Gemma Jones, Katherine Kelly, Sofie Grabol, Vincent Franklin, Shaun Dooley
Created, written and directed by: Sally Wainwright
Premieres: Monday, April 22, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)