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North & South
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North and South (Dbl DVD) (BBC)
North & South is a splendid, four-hour adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's 19th century novel about an unlikely, and somewhat star-crossed, love between a middle-class young woman from England's cultivated south and an intemperate if misunderstood industrialist in a hardscrabble, northern city. Daniela Denby-Ashe plays Margaret Hale, forthright and strong-willed daughter of a former vicar (Tim Pigott-Smith) who relocates his family from a pastoral village outside London to unforgiving, largely illiterate Milton, a factory town where John Thornton (Richard Armitage) and his mother (Sinead Cusack), survivors of poverty, rule their cotton mill with an iron hand. Thornton befriends Margaret's father but incurs her wrath for his severity with his workers. What she doesn't notice is Thornton's core sense of responsibility for his employees' welfare. On the other hand, he misinterprets some of Margaret's own actions and intentions. Equally stubborn, the two drag out their obvious attraction over many painful months and events.
North & South's two leads are both very good, though Armitage's brooding, penetrating performance may very well be considered a classic one day. There are other wonders in the cast: Cusack and Pigott-Smith are superb, and Brendan Coyle is memorable as a firebrand union organizer who ultimately becomes an ally to a softening Thornton. The miniseries script by Sandy Welch is a persuasive mix of historical context and character study. Brian Percival's direction is full of moments that linger in the imagination, such as the winter-dream look of a busy cotton mill, with thousands of snowy fibers floating in the air. --Tom Keogh
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Many in the US will probably confuse Elizabeth Gaskell's "North & South" to John Jake's civil war drama of the same name. While Jake's tells the story of America's north and south, Gaskell's story is rooted in Victorian England. John Thornton, a handsome, stern, passionate manufacturer from Milton represents the north. Margaret Hale, an outspoken, beautiful and spirited young woman from Helstone represents the south. When the Hales move from the idyllic village of Helstone to the bustling, industrial city of Milton, Margaret and Thornton's lives collide.
John Thornton is instantly attracted to Margaret while she is repulsed by his haughty demeanor and the way he treats his employees. She develops a disdain for the wealthy 'masters' (manufacturers) and strikes a friendship with the daughter of the local union leader, much to Thornton's dismay. As Margaret becomes better acquainted with Mr. Thornton, she gradually comes to admire him. She discovers that he is hardworking, a devoted brother and son, generous and kind to Margaret's parents, and is loyal and honorable. However, when the workers in Milton strike, the turn of events that follow drive a wedge between Margaret and Thornton and eventually threaten to pull them apart.
"North & South" is produced by the excellent BBC and the screenplay was written by Sandy Welch, who also penned the outstanding "Our Mutual Friend." Everything you would expect from a topnotch BBC production is here - locations, sets, costumes, casting, direction, cinematography. The story is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's little known but well loved 19th century novel. Mrs. Gaskell also wrote "Wives & Daughters" which was turned to another superb miniseries starring Justine Waddell, Keeley Hawes and Francesca Annis in 1999.
I would be very remiss in writing a review for this miniseries without applauding the exemplary cast. The little known Richard Armitage has earned a throng of fans overnight because of his unforgettable portrayal of John Thornton. He has since replaced Pride & Prejudice's Colin Firth as my favorite brooding hero and infuses so much passion and charisma into his role. Daniela Denby-Ashe is wonderful and charming as Margaret Hale. Also excellent are Brendan Coyle as the gruff but good-hearted Nicholas Higgins, Sinead Cusack as John Thornton's haughty but devoted mother, Joy Joyner as the funny and superficial Fanny Thornton, Lesley Manville as Mrs. Hale and Tim Piggot-Smith as Mr. Hale.
"North & South" has since replaced 1995's "Pride & Prejudice" as my favorite miniseries. It tugs at the heart and sweeps the viewer off their feet. The relationships that develop between its main characters (notably, Thornton and Margaret; Thornton and Higgins; Margaret and Bessy Higgins) and the journey that Margaret and Thornton go through are truly unforgettable. In fact, you will wish that the ending didn't come so soon!
"North and South" went through a sad process of editing when BBC America aired it in July 2005. A full hour was cut from the miniseries to make room for commercials. Finally, with this dvd release US viewers now have a chance to see this instant classic as it was meant to be seen - with a 233 minute running time and with all the scenes intact. The dvd also includes a delightful interview with Richard Armitage, a handful of deleted scenes (including an extended 'proposal' scene), commentaries and cast biographies.
If you are an anglophile or a fan of high-quality period drama, you owe it to yourself to see "North & South." Fans of "Pride & Prejudice," "Wives & Daughters," "Middlemarch," Dickens / Austen adaptations and the like should not miss this. I have no doubt that most of you will fall in love with this miniseries as many of us have. Everyone whom I have recommended this miniseries to have at least liked it (and at most, are completely obsessed with it). This dvd is a keeper and deserves a place in any period drama fan's dvd collection.
Margaret Hale's world is turned upside-down when her minister father gives up his Southern "Helstone" parish and moves her and her mother to the Northern industrial town, "Milton." Her first encounter with mill owner Mr. Thornton leaves much to be desired and leaves her feeling that "the North" is an untenable place to live. After spending time getting to know the plight of the various poor mill workers and taking care of her beloved and now-ailing mother, Margaret begins to warm to her new town: but can a "Southern" gal as she ever truly feel at home in such an alien "Northern" place? And will she ever be able to get past her initial dislike of Mr. Thornton?
This is a fantastic, beautifully-filmed and well-done series (aired on BBC USA in July)! The cinematography is so excellent and compelling, and the scenes wonderfully acted: Daniela Denby Ashe as Margaret Hale and Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton are completely wonderful. If you have seen this series, let me just say the train scene is one of my favorites of all time! The content is kept to mild violence (of angry mill workers) and little else: clean and family-friendly, this great TV series will endear itself to your heart as much as mine, just give it a chance...
If you can find the time, read the book by Elizabeth Gaskell: I just finished it, and let me tell you, it is absolutely amazing! BBC did a good job of adapting it (although some storyline and characters have been altered for the sake of time).
Again, this is a wonderful series and well worth the time, effort and money you will spend!
PRODUCTION VALUES: Historic looms weave again. Lemon-yellow sunlight floods a garden's translucent petals and leaves. Made me cry. Gave me chills.
MARTIN PHIPPS' HYPNOTIC SCORE: reminiscent of Gorecki; minimalism that drills past the kapital-K-krap of the last hundred years of pop culture and reaches something as fundamental as the beat of a human heart, the lungs' breath. Honors both one of the most wrenchingly intimate onscreen moments ever and yet also the sweep of the Industrial Revolution.
SINEAD CUSACK: breathtaking as a ruthless matriarch; better, even than Nancy Marchand as a Mafia queen in "The Sopranos."
POSTURE: Never has so much drama been milked out of actors' vertebrae. Helen Hayes' czarina pose in "Anastasia" was good, but Sinead Cusack's carriage and Richard Armitage's spinal column earn special Academy Awards.
PLOT TWISTS: I did not know where this one was going until the very last moment of the very last scene. Twists pulled me into the issues the plot engages, and made me engage them myself.
IT'S COMPLICATED: Leftist academics' pinko-tinged glasses depict the workers as beautiful and bosses as diabolical. But tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who brutalized his workers, was an epic philanthropist; workers scabbed, drank, and beat their kids. N&S depicts historical complications with its heroic/brutal workers/bosses. All characters are sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes utterly alienating - just like real life! A complex script works to earn our understanding, and our love, for complex human beings, the service, art, at its best, performs.
CHICK FLICK: "Fight, flight, or fix it" is a male response. Guy flix: explosions, chases, gadgets. "Tend and befriend" is a female response. We restore the world by ministering to its root: human hearts. N&S presents its heroine and its viewer with misunderstandings she must address; doing so, she matures, and we mature with her. Margaret's blossoming is an integral cog in a shock striking the world even today: the journey from tradition and pastoral beauty to sharp-elbow competition and industrial ugliness. Margaret's flailing culture shock and attempts to find, remain, and cultivate her best self under a rulebook she hasn't yet seen mirrors millions' struggle. Daniela Denby-Ashe limn's Margaret's triumph with honesty and grace. She's not afraid to be unlikeable; she's not even afraid to be noble.
MISOGYNY-FREE ZONE: We are so awash in misogyny, often fed by women themselves - who can forget the blow struck for women's dignity by celebrities who go out without their underthings? - that N&S is almost shocking in the respect it shows women. Margaret Hale has a front-row seat to one of the greatest upheavals in human history: industrialization. She takes on its rewards and woes. She makes decisions, engages with the powerful, grows and changes. And she does all this without once trivializing herself, or allowing anyone else to trivialize her. *And* she's accompanied by interesting women and girls, both rich and poor. That, alone, makes N&S worth more than a hundred critical darlings in which misogyny is an inescapable ingredient.
MORALITY. CHRISTIANITY. HOPE. REMEMBER THOSE? Gaskell's book and this adaptation take on really hard challenges: workers v. capitalists, traditional rural life's poverty and its beauty v. laissez-faire capitalism's new opportunities, ugliness and anomie. N&S could have just exploited the Industrial Revolution as colorful backdrop; it didn't. N&S attempts to offer solutions and hope, based on fundamental Christian values like non-violence and sharing. Gee, what if the folks who had made the nihilistic downer film "Syriana," about our dependence on petroleum, had tried something similar? When the N&S boss and his workers sat down to a meal together, I cried cynicism-free tears. But . . . what WERE they eating? It looked like sludge. The redemption in the movie's key kiss is not just about eros, it's also about agape. And that made me cry. (Cried many times.)
BRENDAN COYLE AS NICHOLAS HIGGINS: Let's import Higgins, making sure he keeps that snazzy, puffy-sleeved shirt that displays his chest hair. He'd be a greater boost to the trade union movement than locating Jimmy Hoffa.
NOT A SINGLE WASTED CHARACTER, PERFORMANCE, OR SCENE: A bereaved husband converses with his late wife, as a maid looks on, her facial expression speaking volumes. A desperate man gazes at running water dyed purple. The most amazing scene of all, every bit as stunning as the famous crane shot in GWTW: a woman, her straw hat and bumpkin gait rendering her an agrarian silhouette in an industrial landscape, drawn by a seductive, menacing, thrum, walks up to a large wooden door, pulls it back, and steps into the Industrial Revolution. "I have seen hell, and it is white, snow white." Mebbe so. But that scene is cinematic heaven-on-earth.
RICHARD ARMITAGE: I don't even want to go there. Let's just say that I've just purchased the latest ticket to his crowded harem of adoring fans, and this: even if I had watched N&S with the sound turned off; Armitage's performance was so exquisitely articulate I could have transcribed pages of dialogue and backstory just from studying his face. But if I watched with the sound turned off, I would have missed the most arresting screen voice since Orson Welles, and the dreamiest since Ronald Coleman . . . Ladies, cave. Resistance is futile.
Margaret Hale is a beautiful young woman who has been a part of London society and who "hales" from an Edenic village in the South of England--a part of the world where life moves at a slower pace, untainted by the filth, over-crowding, anonymity, and abject poverty which was a by-product of the industrial revolution in the North. Her life is turned upside down, however, when her father, a local vicar, suffers a crisis of faith which results in him leaving the church and uprooting his family to the dreary, smoky, northern industrial town of Milton where he hopes to eke out a living as a tutor.
Margaret is disgusted by all she sees in this new, foreign place which is unlike anything she has ever known. She lays the fault for the appalling social conditions at the feet of the industrialists--the "masters"--towards whom she betrays an almost instant prejudice. The industrialist who bears the brunt of Margaret's antagonism and criticism is John Thornton, a pupil and friend of her father's.
The central story revolves around the antagonistic relationship between these two characters, and it is hard not to make comparisons with Austen's Pride & Prejudice. Though he's a hard-working industrialist rather than an idle, landed gentleman, Thornton is very similar to Darcy, as much for his serious, stern, brooding nature as for his integrity and strength of character. Also like Darcy, he falls desperately in love--despite himself--with a strong-willed, proud, outspoken, intelligent young woman who spurns his love and sends him off with his tail between his legs. Like the aloof, prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet, it is only after spurning her would-be lover that Margaret Hale comes to realize just what sort of man she has rejected. That said, I will say no more regarding their relationship, as I don't wish to spoil the story for those unfamiliar.
North & South also deals with the working and living conditions of the mill workers and with the labour unions of the time. We see the union from the perspective of both the masters and the workers, but we also see tension within the ranks of the workers. Solidarity is the foundation upon which the union gets its strength, but we are forced to question the justification of the union's tyrannical enforcement of it when we see cruel harships befall certain individuals as a result.
Dvd extras include deleted scenes and an interesting 15-minute interview with Richard Armitage. Text-based extras include interesting production notes and "bios" of 5 of the main actors, which consist of little in the way of biography and are mostly comments about themselves and their roles! There is also a commentary on episodes 1 & 4.
North & South is a powerful, passionate, beautiful story (not to mention rivetting--I initially watched it on television, and rarely have I seen a show in which it was SO hard to wait for the next episode). The acting is flawless and the production values unsurpassed, which result in a visually stunning, rich, dynamic presentation. I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the best dramas (period or otherwise) produced by the BBC in a very long time. It will be a special treat for anyone with a penchant for period productions; as for those who enjoyed 1995's Pride & Prejudice, it is absolutely a must see! In short, this is one mini-series which I cannot praise highly enough, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone looking for top quality dramatic entertainment.
I certainly can see why many compare "North and South" with "Pride and Prejudice" although most refer to the 1995 BBC production. But I would include the 2005 film in my comparison (and I love both versions) because, for example, I really noticed the close-ups on the touching of Thornton's and Margaret's hands, especially at the dinner party (I half expected Thornton to flex his hand as Macfayden's Darcy did; he doesn't) and later Margaret kissing his hand -- both these events compare very favorably with Matthew Macfayden's Darcy's reaction to holding Lizzy's hand to help her in a carriage and the ending when she kisses his hand. And Thornton's more casual look in the final sequences without his coat and cravat -- which gives him a romantic Lord Byron look in his big sleeved white shirt with wide cuffs which come to his knuckles -- rivals the casual look Darcy presented when he comes to Lizzy at dawn at the end of the film. These men go from being buttoned up and formal to more casual romantic suitors. It's very pleasing. I think most women will swoon at the kisses -- the best I've seen in a very long time -- as I did and it is true the 5+ minute ending is one of the most romantic and satisfying ever filmed. I've rewatched it many times.
Although the excellent story (wonderfully acted throughout by a talented cast) is grim at times (people do die in this), and it is certainly not the lighthearted fare of "Pride and Prejudice" as it deals with the Industrial Revolution -- the horrifying working conditions in the cotton mills, strikers versus their employers -- I think the story is more real and easier to relate to than "Pride and Prejudice." And, interestingly enough, it is a story which would more easily be updated to a present day story in some ways (look at United Airlines, General Motors and others which are struggling with worker's vs. management, layoffs and averting financial ruin). I found it is easier to relate to businessman/entrepreneur John Thornton struggling to run his cotton mill, a huge manufacturing complex, as he deals with restless workers and the market forces of the cotton industry (the pre-Civil War Americans -- this story is set around 1850 -- are flooding the English markets with cheap cotton products and English manufacturers like Thornton are having a hard time competing) than to landed gentry and matchmaking of Jane Austen's books. This business aspect, as well as certain parts of the love story, are almost contemporary.
The love/hate, pride/prejudice behavior between Thornton and Margaret definitely rivals in many ways the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship right down to her rejection of his offer of marriage, their verbal barbs, his walking from her home after his rejected proposal (shades of Colin Firth's Darcy leaving Mr. Collin's house after Lizzy rejected him). Above all, Richard Armitage (a very handsome actor) as Thornton definitely does smoulder as much as Colin Firth's Darcy did -- maybe more so. I hope to see a lot more of him because it's not just looks here, but he's a very fine and talented actor.
All the actors in this production are terrific. This is a wonderful BBC production I can highly recommend and again, the last 5 minutes are among the most romantic ever filmed!
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