Below is my review of the 2004 BBC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel:
“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review
If someone had told me years ago that I would find myself watching the 2004 BBC television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, let alone purchase a DVD copy of the miniseries, I would have dismissed that person’s notion as inconceivable. I have never shown any previous interest in “NORTH AND SOUTH”. And I am still baffled at how I suddenly became interested in it.
Mind you, I have been aware of the 2004 miniseries for the past several years. This was due to my interest in the three miniseries based upon John Jakes’ literary trilogy about two families during the years before, during and after the American Civil War. Every time I tried to find photographs or websites about Jakes’ trilogy, I would end up encountering material on the BBC miniseries. It took me at least three to four years to express any real interest in “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But in the end, I found it difficult to ignore the mid-Victorian setting (a period I have always been interested in) and decided to include the miniseries on my Netflix rental list.
But when Netflix decided to offer the opportunity to view “NORTH AND SOUTH” via the computer, I watched the first fifteen minutes of Episode One . . . and became intrigued. Then I accessed at least two scenes from the miniseries on YOU TUBE - namely John Thornton’s marriage proposal to Margaret Hale and Nicholas Higgins’ castigation of Boucher for ruining the strike via violence and became hooked. I had to see the entire miniseries as soon as possible. So what did I do? Instead of moving “NORTH AND SOUTH” to the top of my Netflix list, I purchased a DVD copy of the miniseries. Just like that. Yes, I know I could have easily done the former. But for some reason, I found myself longing to own the DVD. And you know what? I am very glad that I made the purchase.
The miniseries is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the cultural clash between England’s pastoral South and the industrial North in the 1850s. It told the story of Margaret, a well-to-do young woman from southern England who is forced to move to the North after her clergyman father became a church dissenter and decided to leave the clergy. With the help of a family friend named Mr. Bell, the Hales managed to find a home in the city of Milton (a stand-in for Manchester). However, they end up struggling to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family that owns a cotton mill called Marlborough Mills. The story explored the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to John Thornton.
Many have compared “NORTH AND SOUTH” to the 1995 miniseries “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Personally, I only saw scant resemblance between the two stories. Both featured a romance between a plucky, yet genteel heroine and a brooding hero. But the personalities of Margaret Hale and John Thornton seemed a far cry from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also, “NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed more than just a costumed romantic story filled with misunderstandings. As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is a social drama about class and gender differences. It is also an exploration of the rise of the Industrial Age and its effects upon people, Great Britain’s economy and the environment. Most importantly, the story is a cultural clash between the pastoral South represented by Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s industrial North.
The miniseries’ exploration of the cotton textile industry led me to ponder a few things about the story’s background. A conversation between Thornton and some of his fellow mill owners led to a mention of the cotton they have purchased from cotton planters in the American South. Although their conversation only touched upon the different locations where cotton is grown, the subject would end up having an impact upon England’s cotton textile industry following the outbreak of the American Civil War. I also noticed that mill workers like Nicholas Higgins and his daughters Bessie and Mary refer to their bosses as”Master” - the same term African-American slaves use for their owners. I can only speculate on that astounding coincidence.
I have never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Perhaps I will, one day. But I understand there had been a few changes in this adaptation. One, the miniseries depicted Margaret’s initial meeting with Thornton at a time when he was beating one of his employees for smoking on the Marlborough Mills premises. Naturally, Margaret viewed Thornton’s actions as cruel and barbaric – typical of men in that region. Screenwriter Sandy Welch had created the scene for the miniseries, believing it would better serve as an opening salvo for Margaret’s dislike of Thornton and her prejudices against the North in a more dramatic manner. Although some fans have complained against this artistic license, I have not. Especially since Welch’s screenplay explained that the worker’s smoking could have endangered the employees with a devastating fire. I also feel that this scene visually worked better than Gaskell’s literary introduction of the two main characters.
Another major change in the miniseries featured Margaret and Thornton’s final reconciliation at a railway station between London and Milton. The scene featured Margaret offering financial aid to Thornton for the defunct Marlborough Mills and a romantic kiss between the two. Many have pointed out the lack of discretion of such a kiss in Victorian Britain and they are probably right. But I must admit that I found it damn romantic – probably more so than Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation in most of the“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” adaptations I have seen.
Production designer Simon Elliot did a first-rate job in recapturing Great Britain in the early 1850s. I especially applaud his decision to use parts of Edinburgh as a stand-in for Milton. This was a wise decision, considering that the Scottish metropolis managed to retain many of its buildings from the Victorian industrial era. Elliot ended up receiving a much deserved British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. Not only did Peter Greenhalgh’s photography also captured the period’s mood, but also used different tints of color to distinguish the three main settings in the story – Helstone in Southern England, the Northern industrial town of Milton and London. Mike O’Neill’s costumes suited the period, the personalities of each major character and their circumstances throughout the story. In fact, the miniseries even touched upon the differences between Fanny Thornton’s wide crinoline skirts and the Hale women’s more subdued ones – pinpointing the financial differences between the three female characters and their families. And what can I say about Martin Phipps’ score? Not only was it beautiful, but also haunting enough to be memorable.
The only problems I had with “NORTH AND SOUTH” centered on its pacing in late Episode 3 and in Episode 4. I think the miniseries could have benefitted from a fifth episode. There seemed to be too many deaths and other incidents during this period of the story for two episodes. I suppose one could blame Gaskell or also her editor – author Charles Dickens – for rushing her toward the end. Too much occurred during these last two episodes – the deaths, Thornton’s friendship with Higgins, Frederick Hale’s reunion with his family, Margaret’s legal problems, Fanny Thornton’s marriage, Thornton’s financial crisis and Margaret’s reunion with her family members in the South and Henry Lennox. I do believe that a fifth episode could have suffice. Also, Welch introduced two characters to the story – a banker named Latimer and his daughter Ann. I believe Ann was used or to be used as Margaret’s rival for Thornton’s romantic interest. Only the so-called rivalry never really went anywhere.
“NORTH AND SOUTH” was really blessed with a first-rate cast – both leading and supporting. Try as I might, I could not find a performance I would consider to be out-of-step. Neither Tim Piggot-Smith or Lesley Manville had received much notice for their portrayal of Margaret’s parents – Richard and Maria Hale. It seemed a shame, considering I found myself very impressed by their performances. Both did an excellent job in conveying how dysfunctional and emotionally repressed the Hale household tended to be. This was especially made apparent in an emotionally charged scene in which Maria Hale expressed her dislike of Milton and lack of understanding toward her husband’s decision to give up the clergy. Brian Protheroe portrayed Mr. Hale’s closest friend and Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell. I have not seen Protheroe since he portrayed Maryam D’Abo’s love interest in the 1990 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, “NOT A PENNY MORE, NOT A PENNY LESS”. As Mr. Bell, he was just as charming and ambiguous as he had been back in 1990. Jo Joyner gave a funny and interesting performance as Fanny Thornton, John’s shallow and capricious younger sister. There were times I wondered if Fanny’s character had a one-dimensional note about it, despite Joyner’s hilarious performance. However, the actress did manage to convey the character’s jealousy of not only Margaret, but also her older brother. I also got the feeling, thanks to some subtle moments in Joyner’s performance that Fanny did not like her mother very much. And resented the older woman.
One could never harbor doubts that Sinéad Cusack’s portrayal of Hannah Thornton might be one-dimensional. Aside from the two leads, she gave one of the best performances in the miniseries. Thanks to Cusack’s complex performance, there were times when I could not decide whether to dislike Mrs. Thornton for her hostile attitude toward Margaret, or like her for her warm and devoted relationship with John. In the end, I guess I liked her. She seemed too interesting, too well-written and well-acted by Cusack for me to dismiss her. Besides, I suspect that her attitude toward Margaret had a great deal to do with concern for her son. I found Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin’s performances as the mill workers, Nicholas and Bessie Higgins just as impressive. Costume dramas rarely focused upon working-class characters. Yet, both Coyle and Martin ably breathed life into their roles, they did an excellent of conveying the strong impact that both father and daughter had upon the lives of other main characters – especially through their friendships with Margaret and Thornton.
Before I actually saw “NORTH AND SOUTH”, I had read a great deal about the John Thornton character and actor Richard Armitage, who had portrayed him. Granted, the man possessed unusual looks, but I never gave him much thought . . . until I saw a clip of his performance in the miniseries’ marriage proposal scene. But once I saw the miniseries in its entirety, I could see why Armitage’s performance had generated a slew of fans. His John Thornton blew me away. Literally. The actor gave an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed, yet emotion cotton mill owner who found himself falling in love with this stranger from the South. As a rule, I am not particularly inclined toward overtly masculine types and I am still not. Armitage’s Thornton might have been described in that manner . . . superficially. Yet, the actor managed to transcend this cliché by infusing Thornton with a passionate, yet insecure nature. His Thornton was a man who literally wore his heart on his sleeve. Armitage’s performance is truly remarkable.
I could probably say the same about Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayal of the story’s central character, Margaret Hale. I had read an article that Denby-Ashe had auditioned for the role of Fanny Thornton. All I can say is thank goodness that producer Kate Baylett had the good sense to realize that the actress would be the right person to portray Margaret. And Denby-Ashe was magnificent. Not only did she perfectly capture the genteel and internalized aspects of Margaret’s personality, she also conveyed the character’s strong-willed and opinionated nature. And Denby-Ashe’s Margaret proved to be just as intimidating as Armitage’s Thornton. This was especially apparent in two scenes – Margaret’s demand that Thornton do something to protect his new Irish workers from the strikers and her hostile outburst toward Helstone’s new vicar after he had criticized her father’s dissention. She was magnificent in the role.
I really must applaud how producer Kate Barlett, screenwriter Sandy Welch and especially director Brian Percival did a superb job in adapting Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. In fact, I firmly believe it is one of the best programs that aired on television in the past decade. And yet . . . the only real accolade it managed to receive was a British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. And nothing else. No nominations for acting, writing or direction. Frankly, I consider this to be a travesty. Am I to believe that the bigwigs at BBC and the British media had this little respect for”NORTH AND SOUTH” or Elizabeth Gaskell? I am even beginning to suspect that the American media has little respect for it. The only airing of the miniseries was a chopped up version that aired on BBC America, instead of PBS or the A&E Channel. How sad that certain people do not know a really good thing when they see it.
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