If you had to describe "North and South," it would probably be something like "Jane Austen with more sociopolitical content."
But not quite enough of that goes into the 1975 miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell's underrated novel about love and worker unions just after the Industrial Revolution. A pre-stardom Patrick Stewart makes a powerful and scene-stealing Mr. Thornton, with his booming voice and strong features, but Rosalie Shanks gives a relatively pallid and artificial performance as the main character.
After a decade living in London, Margaret Hale (Shanks) returns to the idyllic country village of Helstone to live with her parents. But then her father (Robin Bailey) declares that he is leaving the Church of England out of vague religious scruples, and is instead becoming a classical tutor. Unfortunately for Margaret, this means moving to the dirty, hardscrabble northern town of Milton, which contains several mills and manufacturing businesses.
Her father's first pupil is Mr. Thornton, who worked his way up out of poverty through brains and hard work, and now owns a cotton mill. Margaret soon makes a friend (Barbara Hickmott) who is dying because of poor conditions at the mill. So she blames Thornton, believing he's unfair and harsh to his workers.
And she's not the only one -- the dissatisfied workers of Milton have begun to rebel against their employers, forming a union and going on strike. Thornton finds himself in the middle of the conflict, even as Margaret struggles to help her ailing mother -- and despite being on different sides of the increasingly heated conflict, the two of them begin to fall in love. But misunderstandings, class differences and tragedy stand in their way.
"North and South" is neither an excellent adaptation, nor a bad one. Instead it lies in that bland middle-of-the-road place where it's mildly amusing to watch, but only a few things really stick in your mind. It's best enjoyed for the lovely period costumes and the whole subplot about Thornton gradually learning to be more kind to his workers, even to the detriment of his business.
What sets this story apart from other period romances is the whole plot about the workers and industrialists. It takes place after the flowering of the Industrial Revolution, when labor in mills and factories was cheap and dangerous, and there were no laws or safety regulations to protect people. It would be easy to just demonize the big nouveau riche guys like Thornton, but there is a genuine effort to show both sides of the conflict -- neither side is all nobility or all villainy. There are no easy answers.
And woven in are some important subplots, such as Mrs. Hale's slow fatal illness (implied to be caused or exacerbated by the industrial smog) and Margaret's exiled brother sneaking into the country so he can visit her. But the most important part is both Thornton and Margaret learning to overcome their prejudices and class differences, becoming better people before they can fall in love.
The biggest problem is Rosalie Shanks. While her performance isn't terrible, she doesn't have any of the fire or verve that you would expect from a young woman of such strong opinions. And she plays Margaret with such simpering artificiality that it's difficult to lose yourself in the story, because you keep waiting for her to express a real emotion.
On the other hand, it's easy to see who in this cast would become the big, famous actor. Patrick Stewart wasn't yet a star when he made this miniseries, but every scene he's in is simply filled with his presence -- his rich Shakespearean voice given a more lower-class accent and staccato rhythm. And there are some solid supporting performances by Bailey, Hickmott, Kathleen Byron, Rosalie Crutchley and especially Norman Jones as a passionate, iconoclastic unionist.
"North and South" is an adaptation that doesn't quite do justice to Elizabeth Gaskell's exquisite novel, mostly because the female lead is embarrassing to watch. But watch it for Patrick Stewart and the solid story about unions and industrial workers.