Ah, North and South. Possible one of the greatest film adaptations we have yet seen in the 21st Century. Airing on BBC in 2004, the mini-series stars Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. It was adapted from the novel by the same name published in 1855 by my girl Elizabeth Gaskell, of the Wives and Daughters and Cranford fame. But North and South is nothing like either of those (great novels in their own right, don’t get me wrong).
It is HUGE: sweepingly grand, taking on sectional and class divides, gender issues, the Industrial Revolution, worker’s rights, death, nostalgia, human nature, and just plain old coming of age. It is JAM-PACKED with goodies, but if literature bores you, fear not: it’s all so carefully drawn that the screenplay unfolds like your favorite novel. The filming is a work of art in historical accuracy (except Margaret’s eyebrows, sadly waxed).
I won’t talk much about the plot, because you need to watch it! Suffice it to say, Margaret Hale leaves her idyllic home in the South of England to go north to the industrial town of Milton, where she encounters the harsh realities in the cotton mills of the Industrial Revolution. One of the masters of the mills is Mr. Thornton, whom she originally hates, although he ultimately becomes her love interest. The romance is subtly beautiful. In fact, if I could find one word for the entire series, it would be subtle.
You saw, in my list of social issues above, how many conflicting points of view are at stake, but never once is Gaskell or the screenplay author heavy-handed. In fact, we oscillate between thinking Margaret is right, and then Mr. Thornton, although we are never led there. It is deeply, brutally honest in a way that nothing ever can be if you don’t take your own views off the table. Gaskell let things simply be as they were, challenging the norms of the Victorian Era without ever letting you know it, until you are already changed by truth. It still resonates today, and Margaret Hale is an amazing female lead, even for today. I can only imagine how moving it must have been in 1855.
Go watch it, if for no other reason than you need a romance fix. You won’t be disappointed. Currently available on Netflix.