Film Review-BBC’s North and South (2004)

With the popularity of BBC films and series more and more people are being exposed to quality historical dramas.  I’m just going to give my recommendation right off the bat. If you are a BBC fanatic, if you love their Jane Austen film adaptations, then this four part series is a must see.

Taken from Elizabeth Gaskill’s novel of the same name, North & South addresses social issues of the time as seen through the eyes of its’ female protagonist, Margaret Hale. Margaret is forced to leave her beloved, sunny, southern England to transplant with her parents to cold, harsh, industrial Milton in the north of England. While acclimating to her new environment she meets proud and reserved mill owner, John Thornton. These two clash, both in personality and outlook as Margaret begins to befriend and encourage a few of the poverty stricken mill workers. Through her friendship with them and also her hesitant yet growing relationship with John Thornton and his mother, she is exposed to ideas and conflicts on both sides of the working relationship between mill owners and unions during the Industrial Revolution.

Margaret’s opinion of the cotton mills.

This really is an interesting look at the attitudes and beliefs of employers and employees during a time of great social change. The story is told with both points of views and with honesty without trying to sway the viewer’s sympathy for either side. You see the pros and cons of the argument from both perspectives.

But let’s be honest, we don’t  watch a movie simply for the issues it address, at least I don’t. We watch to be entertained and sometimes educated, but always for the interpersonal relationships that films highlight. North and South, despite giving the viewer an accurate picture of social issues, is really about the relationships of the characters with Margaret acting as the axis for many of them.

We see how individuals relate and interact in families, both in Margaret’s and in Thornton’s.  Both Margaret and Thornton are the backbones in their families and yet in very different ways. Margaret’s family is a reflection of the soft, languid South from which they hale (see what I did there?). Thornton’s family is a reflection of the cold, efficient environment that has forced them to be tough to survive. There is love in both families, but it is expressed very differently.

Through Thornton’s friendship with Mr. Hale, Margaret has access to the world of the mill owners, self-made business men who are more interested in protecting their assets than their employees. Yet Margaret also takes it upon herself to befriend a poor family who all work in various mills, so she often finds herself in the middle of the great social debate trying to help each side to find a solution that will benefit all.

But of course it is the relationship between Margaret and Thornton which is the most interesting and which keeps me coming back to their story again and again. In some ways, their relationship mimics the one between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice as they both struggle with their own pride and prejudice. An early encounter between the two in Thornton’s mill, gives Margaret a bad impression of him which she struggles to overcome despite his many kindnesses to her. And it is her attacks on his character and his own pride over what he has accomplished which is an obstacle for Thornton even though he is immediately drawn to her. Neither character is overly demonstrative, although both are passionate, so it is in the message beneath the words they exchange, certain glances and brief touches which we must ascertain their true feelings for each other.

There is another relationship which only develops towards the end that I won’t spoil for you but it is probably my favorite and plays an important role in bringing Thornton and Margaret together.

I love a good love story and this is one of my favorites. Many films today portray romance as a quick love at first sight followed immediately by the characters jumping into bed together. I prefer a more subtle approach where the tension and yearning is drawn out, where the viewer is forced to pay attention and look for the clues which reveal hidden feelings. You know, a good old fashioned romance.

Along with the romance, this series is a great character study and truly has something for everyone. It is a good depiction of it’s era and fairly true to the original novel. Regular viewers of BBC productions will be pleased to recognize some familiar faces.

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