"We should all look pretty strange under a microscope," botanist Robert Hamley tells our heroine Molly Gibson and of course Mrs Gaskell places all her characters under intense scrutiny, with affection but without judgement. Davies' screenplay peals back the layers, giving full vent to the comedy, tragedy and satire that drive this tale of provincial life to its highly satisfactory conclusion. Justine Waddell imbues Molly with an increasingly exasperated but remarkably forbearing intelligence, while Francesca Annis, as the outrageously self-absorbed step-mother Hyacinth, paints a wonderful portrait of affectation without ever totally alienating our sympathy. Michael Gambon's immensely touching Squire Hamley won him a Best Actor BAFTA, but all the performances are uniformly excellent, contributing immeasurably to five hours of television drama of the highest calibre.
On the DVD: Presented in 16:9 format with a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack, this two-disc presentation retains all the hallmarks of the original BBC viewing experience. The picture quality is lush--the production lighting is excellent--and the sound quality sharp. The only gripe is with the extras: the Omnibus documentary "Who the Dickens is Mrs Gaskell?" is brutally truncated, cutting off talking heads like novelists Fay Weldon and Margaret Drabble in their prime and giving limited insight into how the production was made. As an audio bonus, there is also 30 minutes of John Keane's music.--Piers Ford