There are many things British drama does better than American. Once of them happens to be adapting the classics, another romance. This beautiful BBC miniseries isn’t about the north and south as those of us across the pond recognize the division, but is nonetheless a story about social classes and their differing ways of life.
North and South (2004) BBC Review
The quiet, simple beauty of the south holds Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and her heart captive. Done living among London society as companion to her cousin, Margaret is ready to return to her simple country life where her father (Tim Pigott-Smith) is a small parish cleric. Margaret hasn’t been home long before her father uproots his daughter and wife (Lesley Manville), and moves them to the north. Once there, Margaret finds herself trying to fit into the industrial busyness of a harsh climate, and at every turn she seems to fail.
Among the Hale’s new society is John Thornton (Richard Armitage), a prosperous self-made business man who runs a cotton mill. Mr. Thornton begins to take private lessons with Mr. Hale, who finds himself needing employment after he left the church over a personal conviction. As the fast pace of the North trips Margaret up, she finds herself an unwilling object of affection. Her life then turns upside down with a series of events she couldn’t have foreseen.
Given how long this costume drama has been on DVD and the numerous times I’ve indulged in re-watches, it came as a surprise to me that I’d don’t have a review singing its praises. When my mother suggested a re-watch one random Saturday afternoon, I was eager and all in. I became immersed again in a world that though familiar, I’d been apart from for far too lengthy a time. As the gorgeous familiarity of the opening scene plays, I was lost to a world that was both, beautiful and complex, dark and happy.
Unlike some romantic dramas, North & South has mesmerizing depth that isn’t present in the fabric of so many romances. Romance aside (although due to its magnificence, I will revisit it in greater detail), this story is so much more than romantic entanglements. It’s about a woman’s coming-of-age journey (in a broad sense). It’s about a man experiencing life through the eyes of someone he loves; and the working-class people finding common ground with society’s hierarchy. It’s about unconditional love in more ways than one; and letting the sunshine coax you from the edge of despair in the light of the next day. It’s about love, happiness and beauty in the smallest of joys.
The script is written by Sandy Welch (BBC’s Emma, Jane Eyre and Our Mutual Friend) and directed by the then newcomer Brian Percival. (He went on to direct a handful of Downton Abbey episodes and the big-screen adaptation of The Book Thief.) In addition to the primary cast (who are all magnificent) including Daniela and the near-perfect leading man Richard Armitage; the cast also has Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Anna Maxwell-Martin, Sinéad Cusack and Rupert Evans. Everyone is brilliant, and should have a gold star on their chart. They embody their respective roles wonderfully; and as romantic co-stars, we couldn’t wish for a better characterization than what Daniela and Richard bring to the roles.
This leads me back to the romance, which I did say I’d talk about in greater length. Richard’s portrayal is flawless. The way he loves Margaret has a kind of Darcy vibe, but isn’t exactly the same. He’s has a greater capacity to express how he feels and the tenderness with which he falls for the opinionated Miss Hale is beautiful to experience. Margaret is a tougher character to find common ground with. I don’t know Elizabeth Gaskell’s intention for Margaret, but in this, she’s almost expressionless. She keeps a tight rein on her emotions; and it’s not until late in the four-part series that we realize the depth of her feelings.
Despite multiple re-watches since I bought a copy of this (back when costume drama DVD’s were pricey), I never realized how staunch Margaret is. Pulling a reaction from her (she’s passionate in conversation, but dull in expressions) sometimes makes me what to grab and shake her. Use more than words, Margaret. Let us see what you’re feeling. That said, another reason why there’s this gap between the two characters is to show the greater distance between their two cultures and “way of doing things.”
I suspect there isn’t a costume drama aficionado who hasn’t seen this. On the off chance that you haven’t, make haste. Beg, buy or borrow a copy of North and South (2004) with as much swiftness as you can. It’s as beautiful as you can imagine it being and the end? Let’s just say it rivals some of the greatest romantic scenes you can imagine.
(Disclosure: this post does contain affiliate links; if you buy anything through these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Read the disclosure page for details.)You can buy North and South (2004) on DVD or on Amazon Video (digital). If you haven't seen this BBC #perioddrama, you've missed meeting one of literary's greatest heroes: Mr. Thornton! North and South (2004) - A Beautiful & Authentic Romance Click To Tweet