Downton Abby paved the way and now the British are coming in force. The latest invader is Call the Midwife, an inmate look at the life of midwifery in East London in the late 50s. The series (only 6 episodes) first aired on BBC in January of this year to grand acclaim and PBS has gladly taken up the cause of premiering it stateside.
The series is based upon the memoirs of Jenifer Worth and recall her own time as a midwife in East London. In Call the Midwife the memories of Worth are lived by Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), a woman running away from a romance gone sour who has found herself in a nursing convent in a decidedly rough (read: poor) neighborhood. And in the pre-pill days, a rough, poor neighborhood translates into plenty of babies being born.
Raine is perfectly suited for the time period, with classic beauty and an ingrained poised. She brings understated naiveté and steely resignation towards the circumstances she finds her patients in. Likewise, Judy Parfitt, as the slightly daft if equally lovable Sister Monica Jane, brings the perfect amount of lightheartedness to proceedings that can feel oppressively heavy at times.
Call the Midwife takes a subtle, quiet approach to storytelling, which can feel a bit slow at the start, but, then halfway through the episode, I realized how deeply invested in and how much I related to the characters. Without a doubt it was a powerful hour, full of themes on love, sacrifice and what truly makes a heroine. It isn’t an overwhelming epic by any means, but quiet and intimate and truly concerned with painting a pitcture of a time as well as telling a story.
Period pieces are tough to produce well; they easily can look cheesy or inauthentic, but Call the Midwife is able to avoid those pitfalls. In fact, while watching the pilot I was taken aback by how beautiful the show looks; not a feeling that happens too often with TV, but the cinematography is truly breathtaking. Rather than going for pure authenticity, the entire show is washed out to look like an actual faded photograph from 1957. And really, isn’t nostalgia always more beautiful than reality?
Call the Midwife airs Sundays at 6/7c on PBS Masterpiece.
– Devin Mainville