…Victorian

North and South (2004) Dir. Brian Percival
Spoilers!

Once again I satisfied my hunger for an adaptation of an English novel with this wonderful mini-series.

Based on Elisabeth Gaskell’s novel, “North and South” presents a story of a young lady from the south – Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe). Margaret leads an almost idyllic life in Helstone, a rural village. After her father (Tim Pigott-Smith), a clergyman, leaves the Church of England, they move to an industrial northern city of Milton. There she becomes acquainted with John Thorton (Richard Armitage), a mill owner, and his harsh mother (Sinéad Cusack) and snobbish sister (Jo Joyner). She also finds friends in a poor family of mill workers: Bessy (Anna Maxwell Martin) and her father Nicholas Higgins (Brendan Coyle). These friendships, as we would expect, lead to disappointments and joys, ups and downs.

Margaret is a woman always caught up in two worlds. There is a stark contrast between her peaceful Helstone and energetic Milton. These two places couldn’t be more different. At first, Margaret is miserable because she has to live in a city that is so unlike her beloved village, the place she grew up in and romanticizes greatly. She misses Helstone’s peaceful and quite nature as well as the nature itself (in Milton, she doesn’t see the change of seasons, for example). Unlike Helstone, Milton is gray, dirty and depressing. Even the style of presenting these two places differs – Helstone is always sunny and green, whereas Milton gray and cold. This difference shocks Margaret, and makes her uncomfortable. It takes time for her to adjust and appreciate Milton as she once appreciated Helstone.

There is a change of heart in Margaret. She begins to see things differently. She learns about the lives of simple workers, about children starving in the streets, about the mill owners struggling with keeping up their businesses. She begins to see how people of Helstone live comfortably sheltered from all the sufferings and anxieties while others struggle for their lives. Helstone signifies ignorance, blissful or not, and Milton hard work and need for education. For an educated and ambitious woman that Margaret is work and education appeal to her as the most important virtues she knows. In this respect, Milton wins.

Margaret finds herself on both side of an industrial barricade. She is friends with the mill owner Thorton and the Union leader Higgins. It gives her a chance to understand both perspectives. Thornton, seemingly a cold and dry person, is a just and reasonable business owner. He feels the responsibility for his family as well as for his workers. On the other hand, Nicholas Higgins leads Union members, including all Thorton workers, into a long strike. Margaret realizes it is not a win-win situation. She is sure that Thorton and Higgins could get along because they are both hard working and honest, and they have the same goal: to provide for their families. However, they take opposite stands. Her stand is to convince them to work together. Thanks to her, we witness how they go all the way from hating each other to working together with mutual respect.

Margaret is a fascinating character. She is a strong woman who always wants to be just. Her only mistake, as she admits, is romanticizing first Helstone, then Milton. By comparing these places, she sees only advantages of one of them. Margaret highly values education. It’s far more important that marrying a rich man as her friends would like for her. She contrasts the young ladies in the series: she’s not as frivolous as Fanny, Thornton’s sister, or as marriage-oriented as her London friend. Besides, she is unlike any women characters we know from Jane Austen novels – she is not sentimental, and thank goodness for that. She’s not like Lizzy Bennet — she doesn’t sit around waiting for her rich bachelor to appear. Although she is very much proud and prejudiced at the beginning, she reevaluates her judgment of Milton and Thornton, being, at the same time, friendly and open-hearted. I sometimes thought she was too strong, especially in the face of her parents’ death.

What I also admire about “North and South” is how the romantic story between Margaret and Thorton is presented. Since the beginning, there has been a great deal of tension between them. We might even call it chemistry. Hardly do they verbalize it. It is a story full of ups and downs. In the good moments, they’re feelings remain unspoken. And the nasty moments between them come from misunderstandings and misconceptions they have about each other. The feeling they share grows slowly, steadily, but also greatly. They deny it, push it away, rationalize it, but eventually they let it take over. Only then is the final scene so rewarding: Thorton, ever serious, even grave, smiles warmly for the first time, and Margaret replaces the contempt in her eyes she had for him for loving admiration. They are both changed by this love, and as they find happiness they deserve, we feel a warm sensation, a satisfaction we share with the characters.

“North and South” is worth watching for many reasons. It has wonderful flesh-and-blood characters, especially the women; a fascinating story of the industrial revolution in the Victorian era, with the Union strikes, merciless owners, and bad investments; a conflict between two different worlds and lifestyles — rural and urban; a love story that is far from banal and sentimental; and, last but not least, a great cast and melancholic music that complete the picture perfectly. I recommend!

Long days, pleasant nights,

Veronica Bazydlo

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