Wednesday, May 19, 2010

recommendation: "North & South" (2004 miniseries)

Historical drama is what keeps me breathing, by God. And I ought to be writing the BBC an annual thank-you letter for single-handedly rejuvenating my will to live.

North & South is a four-part series based on Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel (which was originally a twenty-two-part serial). I haven't read the book, but--tangent--I am not much of a stickler for accuracy. I don't really mind if a film adaptation is unfaithful to either the history or the literature on which it is based (though it's delightful when it is bang on) as long as it works on its own as a cohesive tale within a cohesive world and doesn't pretend to be a documentary or The TRUE Story. Good storytelling is good; therein my concerns end. (The key, as ever, is sincerity.) So, I haven't the faintest sense of true-to-the-bookness here, but, to be semi-appropriately referential, I don't give a damn, because it is a damn good series.

Damn good. It's the mid-nineteenth century. Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) is from the southern English countryside, modern-yet-spoiled daughter of a dissenting minister who uproots his family to the north to stay true to his principles. John Thornton (Richard Armitage*) is the owner of a cotton mill in the northern industrial town of Milton: a strict and severe yet equally principled businessman. It is the perfect clash. Milton might as well be an alien planet for Miss Hale, a fact she realizes while trying to accept, if not enjoy, her new life. Mr Thornton is also struggling with acceptance: of his social position--a master, yet hardly aristocratic; supposedly wealthy, yet in fact in danger of losing his business--and of his developing affections for Miss Hale.

There are clashes at all levels: between masters and workers, men and women, families of differing status, the charitable and the prideful. Mr Thornton may declare his love for Miss Hale before either of them is able to deal with it, and Miss Hale may be trying to settle everyone else's problems before realizing she must first remove her own blinkers, but each is trying to do what he or she believes to be best. North & South is all about principles: not right and wrong, but rather the unique personal morality of every individual and how we must mediate it in order to live with each other.

And yet, Milton is somehow not a morally grey place. "I have seen Hell," Miss Hale says, "and it is white." The pale fairylike fluff of the cotton kills those who work in the mill and dictates the lives of everyone in Milton. It is the master, the sole livelihood for Mr Thornton and his employees alike. It is no abstracted evil; it is real. Miss Hale and Mr Thornton must learn how to cope with it when roles are reversed, responsibility must take the place of charity, and white will somehow have to meet black without either losing its purpose and clarity.

Also, there are trains. And kissing on trains. Crossings of paths and revelations in transit; where do we meet? How can we meet halfway? The emotional brilliance of North & South is positively feverish. Perfect.

* Shallow meter: savagely broken. Richard Armitage always shatters all records of SMOKIN' HOTNESS. For reference: the innumerable scenes of lurking, stalking, gazing-through-windows, pining-through-windows, brooding, angsting, and principled passion. Principled passion. Just look at the principles emanating from him in that photo. I take it back about the will-to-live thing. I AM SLAIN.


  1. Absolutely beautiful blog, Kate! I haven't had a chance to see North and South, but I've definitely heard a lot about it.

    About the "smokin' hotness" factor - if that picture says anything at all - it's that!

  2. Thanks, Joanne! Mr Armitage wears that expression or variations on it for pretty much the entire four hours. I'd give N&S full marks for that alone!