Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Movie Review: Elizabeth Gaskell's North & South – BBC 1975

When I first discovered this on Amazon last summer, my near initial reaction was “What!!!??? Another North and South??? How can there be? What in the world do they think they're doing?” (Never mind, of course, that it was done thirty years before you-know-what. Entirely beside the point.) All most unsettling–very.

But on the other hand, if there was another (decent) version of N&S, how could we not watch it? The whole idea had a kind of dreadful fascination...and then there's all that about having an open mind.

The cost when it was released was quite prohibitive, so in the end–still with highly mixed feelings–I placed a purchase request for it at the library. They agreed to get it and we were #1 on a hold list that promptly shot to almost 10. So far so good. We settled down and began waiting...and waiting...and waiting...and waiting some more. Weeks passed. Then–guess what happened? The week, the very week before our big trip, it arrived. Of course, there was no possible way to fit an almost four hour movie into our last long/short/busy/final week at home, so we had to send it back unwatched. An agonizing experience.

But–we thought–at least it will give us something to look forward to after coming home. By this time–due to studying the movie case firsthand, watching the trailer, etc.–our mixed feelings were rapidly dissipating and we were eager to see it. Fortunately in the end, it more than fulfilled our expectations. :-) So now for my review...

First off there were a number of familiar faces:

Robin Bailey as Mr. Hale (appeared several times in the 
b/w Robin Hood tv series with Richard Green)

Kathleen Byron as Mrs. Hale 
(Miss Lavender in the 1975 BBC Anne of Avonlea mini-series)

Tim Pigott-Smith as Frederick 
(Mr. Hale in the 2004 BBC North and South)

Shirley Cain as wife-of-the-new-vicar-of-Helstone 
(Mrs. Phillips in the 1985 BBC P&P)

Secondly–sets and so forth: The sets are well done, while the costumes and hairstyles are really quite good and not too dated. We were a little worried in the first scene, but that concern quickly ironed itself out. (While I'm on the subject–Margaret has a particularly gorgeous, gold-colored, wide-sleeved jacket during the riot scene. ;-)) All in all everything feels very true to period. Higgins and Bessy are well played, pretty much straight out of the book–as are Mr. and Mrs. Hale, Mrs. Thornton, and Fanny.

And now for what you're all really wondering about...

Mr. Thornton and Margaret Hale

Patrick Stewart is of course famous for his role in Star Trek (which I have not seen), and I think he does an excellent job as Thornton. I fully entered into Margaret's initial misunderstanding and dislike of him. He was loud, quick, and imperious, but he could smile unexpectedly, too–even laugh. And yes–he has an accent!

Rosalind Shanks did a wonderful job as Margaret. Very gentle and soft-spoken she does an outstanding job carrying the weight of the changes Margaret goes through–reflecting both the sorrow and quiet joy. She has very speaking eyes, the sweetest smile, and is a true lady throughout.

Together, Thornton and Margaret were very good. The errors and need for growth on both sides comes across clearly and the romantic element is very present. Sparks fly and there are definitely strong undercurrents from the get-go. *Warning (bit of a spoiler here): the riot happens and–then bang! there it is–and between them there's no going back. :-) And then they show afterward–I mean, how she gets up to the sitting room while in a faint. ;-) Okay, end of spoiler.* I didn't do too badly, did I? Anyhow, lest that make you nervous, there are no even remotely indecent scenes–or even scenes where you feel it possibly could go odd.

~Some miscellaneous points: Boucher has far more brains here and orchestrates the riot–which works fine. ~ The first part of the story goes pretty much point by point and the second part moves faster, condensing a bit of the development–personal development on both sides and also as regarding the mill failure. ~ There were some gentle, yet quite humorous moments–two that spring to mind being the duty-bent constables and Lennox's anecdote about Tennyson (which was hilarious if you've read any Tennyson). ~ And finally, the whole film has much of the direct religious language and influence of the book.

The biggest divergence was that they left out the whole Leonards/Margaret/lying episode. More on this another time (as looking at how it's played out in the book). At the moment I'll just say I view it as a crucial point in her personal character development as well as encapsulating the different themes of the story, raising the stakes, and highlighting all the misunderstandings and misinterpretations. That being said, they do stick to and capture the broader themes involved and they do have Thornton trying to protect Margaret's reputation, along with Mrs. Thornton's involvement, etc.–which is all good and well done.

Some things are more out in the open than they are in the book (or in the '04) and near the beginning particularly I think Margaret comes across as more decided. For instance, after returning home to Helstone she speaks of the “veneer” of fashionable London society and of how she wants a “useful” life–which I believe she actually comes to desire over the course of the story itself and fully realizes when she returns to London near the end. But that's not a make-it-or-break-it issue as far as being able to enjoy the film. Part of the reason I like Margaret's character is that she is sometimes uncertain and still acts, even when she can't make sense of all that is going on in her life. Thinking about it again though, I think she actually does become less decided as the story progresses, so perhaps they were trying to bring out how she goes from that attitude of “having everything figured out and knowing exactly where she's going” to that state of utter dependence upon God's will, mercy, and goodness that all of us should be striving for.

Going into it, I was initially nervous that it would change my perception of the story in the sense of, “Is this true? Is this really the story? Have I been misreading it all this time?” (I've had that experience before with something else.) But it didn't. It was just a different take on it. And as far as the films go I think you can like both versions (I do at least) without viewing one or the other as “better”. Both are faithful to the book, diverging about the same amount–just in different areas.

My final verdict? Is that I thoroughly enjoyed it–still find it thought-provoking–would like to see it again–and am thrilled to be able to recommend it without reservation!


  1. You know... shockingly North and South is one of those period dramas that I always mean to see, but have never seen. I've seen every possible Jane Austen book to movie adaptation (including some outright horrible ones that left me aghast!), love Wives and Daughters, and so on, but this one.... for some odd reason, has never been watched. Either adaptation, actually. This one or the '04. I need to remedy this, at some point, it sounds like. I keep having it recommended, and I keep putting it off. :P

    1. Kaitlyn,
      Most definitely! :-) And I do hope you can see them sometime soon... As you might be able to tell, they're some of my all-time favorites. :-)

      Eventually I'd like to do a review of the '04 here and several posts on different aspects of the story itself. It's one that really invites you to think...sticking with you. I don't know if you've read it, but it's written in a different style from Gaskell's other work so it's a little different reading experience. There are a lot of underlying tensions and moments where Gaskell highlights how words simply don't go far enough sometimes. They bring that aspect out more in the '04, so before watching that one particularly it would probably be helpful to have read the book. (Though you might want to read it before watching either adaptation.)

      Anyhow, I'm sure there will be more appearing here on the N&S theme in the future. ;-) And if you're able to watch them I'd love to hear what you think!!! :-)

    2. I am sending out a "who has this" e-mail to my friends. :D Although.... I'm normally the one who everyone asks for stuff, so I may not have much luck. The library might have it, though. I could always see. :D

    3. Let me know if you have any success! I guess I'm a little too far to loan mine... :-) Oh, well.

  2. Kind of just skimmed this as I haven't read the book nor seen either version... but I think this is the version I'll try to get my hands on first! Patrick Stewart never fails to delight me. I've only seen a handful of his ST:TNG episodes, but I adore him in A Christmas Carol and the recent BBC Hamlet with David Tennant. And various other things, but those are my favorites, and pretty easy to find.

    1. I do hope you can see it soon! I'd like to see it again...sharing it with some of my family that didn't see it the first time...and I'll have to look into the ones you mentioned.

    2. His Carol is delightful. Based on a one-man show he did on Broadway in the '90s, I believe.

    3. Wow, it sounds most interesting. I'll definitely have to look it up. :-)

    4. Hamlette,
      Just wanted to let you know that we watched this again for the second time last weekend and it was just as good as the first time... And several family members who weren't big on the story before now really like it. ;-) Hope you can see it soon!

    5. My library doesn't have it, so it's on my birthday wish list!

  3. I've not seen this version! I think that after seeing the one with Mr. Armitage I wouldn't like this version... lol :-p

    1. Yes, I've seen the '04 version A LOT (to give you an idea, it ranks with the '95 P&P as one of my two top favorite period dramas, below which come all the others :-) ), but I really like this version, too. Eventually, I'm planning to do a review of both the book and the '04 version so I'll expand on some of the differences then :-), but I think the two films are different enough from each other that you can like both in different ways. I would say that the '04 actually comes much closer to the tone of the book-in terms of what is and is not said-but (among other things) this one is very interesting in its different take on the story and as a refresher in seeing again just how different Thornton and Margaret were from each other. :-)

  4. Wait, whoa, hold the phone, TOM PIGOT-SMITH PLAYED FREDERICK?!?!?! That is just -- that actually makes me really happy. How fantastic that he came back and played Mr. Hale in the '04 version?!?! Fabulous. :)


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