“Gentleman Jack,” a new HBO series, tells the little-known story of Anne Lister, a woman who lived in the early 1800s and kept a coded diary recounting her travels, business ventures and — most strikingly — numerous affairs with other women. The series follows Lister as she revitalizes her family estate and pursues a wealthy heiress named Ann Walker.
Suranne Jones (“Doctor Foster”) embodies Lister perfectly. Her every movement, from the way she walks to the way she sits, reflects the masculine air of her historical counterpart. We see her character in a wide range of roles, from hard-nosed negotiator to jilted lover to calculating seductress. My favorite moments of acting feature Lister breaking the fourth wall, whether through conversational monologues or well-timed glances at the camera. It is a brilliant way to translate Lister’s diaries to the screen, and Jones handles these moments with subtlety and humor.
I was equally delighted with Sophie Rundle (“Peaky Blinders”) as the timid Miss Walker. While her character is more reserved, her every emotion plays out on her face, giving us a sense of just how unprepared Miss Walker is to combat Lister’s charms. As the show progresses, we begin to see Miss Walker emerge as a multidimensional character who is more than a passive love interest — perhaps my favorite surprise the show has had so far.
Other notable performances include Gemma Whelan (“Game of Thrones”) in the comedic role of Lister’s put-upon younger sister and Gemma Jones (“Sense and Sensibility”) as Lister’s warm and wise aunt who openly accepts her niece’s sexuality.
Lister is the type of female character we rarely see in television, much less in the role of the protagonist. It is rare to see lesbian characters on the screen, and even rarer to see gay women who do not conform to traditional gender roles. Furthermore, Lister is an incredibly complex lead and one who is not always likable. From the beginning, she makes it clear to the audience that her interest in Miss Walker stems mostly from Walker’s independent wealth. She is a ruthless businesswoman and an unforgiving landlord, yet she is also clever, kind and charming enough that we, like Miss Walker, are more than happy to look past her many flaws.
It plays out a bit like a Jane Austen novel turned TV-MA rated HBO show: full of quick dialogue, decadent clothing and enough sexuality that you would be hesitant to watch it with your parents. It does require a reasonable attention span and a tolerance for in-depth discussions about coal mining, but the viewer is rewarded with a compelling protagonist and a fascinating romance.
It would be impossible to talk about “Gentleman Jack” without talking about the show’s aesthetic. I tend to be wary of costume design in historical dramas, which often seems more concerned with being visually appealing than historically accurate. The minds behind “Gentleman Jack” have no such problem. The 1830s, during which the show is set, were not great years for fashion — think enormous sleeves, gaudy pastels and hair done up with the face framed by unflattering sausage curls. The costuming leans into the extravagance of the era to great effect. There is a striking contrast between the masculine fashions worn by Lister, who was known to dress only in black, and the ultra-feminine fashions surrounding her. Equally effective is the imagery of shy, reclusive Miss Walker being practically swallowed whole by her frivolous garments. Through costuming alone, we see how alienated our two protagonists are from society.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the show is just this — the careful balance between historical accuracy and modern sensibilities. While undoubtedly modern in its unflinching portrayal of a lesbian protagonist, “Gentleman Jack” does not hide from the fact that it takes place almost 200 years ago. It embraces the 1830s, from the way people spoke and acted to the way they thought and dressed. The result is a gripping show that appeals to an audience looking for something more fresh and progressive than the average historical drama but still remains familiar to fans of the genre.
“Gentleman Jack” airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO.