I’ve decided! It’s high time I reviewed my favorite period drama—the ’04 North and South. I’ve actually been planning this all year and (given that about November-time I traditionally start wanting to watch it anyway and its being just over one year since my ‘72 N&S review) everything fits together quite perfectly!
Yet I had this review I’d been wanting to write and I really did want to see it again. So just before Thanksgiving—gifted with an open afternoon and with Christmas knitting in hand and keeping one eye on the fire—I settled down to some reevaluation.
And to make a long story short (and as you can already tell from the opening sentences), the mystery and thrill are entirely there again. The characters…the acting…the beauty and depth of the story! It’s all utterly amazing.
A splendiferous cover…
This version (for certain delightful reasons) always makes me want to go over and reread the book again. The story itself is weighty, but I wouldn’t call it either morbid or depressing.
With the weightiness, though, there is a dark atmosphere that’s perfectly captured here in the very streets, mill, rooms, and lighting throughout.
The wardrobes are gorgeous…often somber, but beautiful. And (with the one exception of her dinner dress, which is entirely too low) I absolutely love all Margaret’s dresses.
Their beauty—and how they perfectly and flawlessly meld with her character—is really beyond description.
The casting is brilliant, with everyone very much in period. I think the characters most changed from the book were the Higgins family and—as I actually love what they chose to do—I’m quite happy with the adjustment.
A twinkly-eyed Higgins
(Mrs. Thornton is also particularly outstanding)
But the principal characters. The conflict! Well, let’s simply say there is a reason why this is my favorite period drama and a top favorite rendition of one of my favorite books. :)
First there’s Margaret…with her regal beauty, her gentleness, her loyalty.
And there’s Mr. Thornton. A gentleman, yes—but first, foremost, and foundationally a true man. A man strong, passionate, honorable and upright.
This adaptation captures all the themes of the story magnificently. There’s a deep beauty and a deep integrity in North & South. There are undercurrents. There is reticence. The beyond places are reached where words—weakening—fall short to the ground, growing impossible. There is intensity—small moments catapulting to enormous tension. There is rich foreshadowing.
*And warning: from here on there will be spoilers*
Besides all the direct dialogue between Thornton and Margaret themselves, one thing I noticed this time was how often a conversation (not gossip) between two people illuminates a third person (rather than everything being internalized within that other person’s scenes).
So we see Margaret’s imperious steadfastness in Thornton’s conversation with his mother after the first proposal.
We see his incredible covering and protection of her (Margaret) after Leonards death during the few short words of her second interview with the constable.
The man to man friendship between Thornton and Higgins is another highlight of the story and beautifully developed.
A third element I love is how they chose to focus on hands throughout: hands showing who and what each character is, what they stand for, what they choose to do or sacrifice, and also the growth and change of a relationship between two people. (And then—of course—in the ending we have a stunning culmination of the imagery.) It’s all superbly done, flowing directly and seamlessly from the tone of the story.
For me, North & South is real. It’s about real life where a man can have pride, yet isn’t too proud to accept help from his wife. (And incidentally, I love how Gaskell inverts that plot point!)
Thornton wanted to marry her when she had nothing and he everything. In the end, (money-wise) it’s reversed, but neither even thinks of it. With the ongoing tensions of truth, honesty, loyalty, protection and change running through the story, their relationship has left any mere financial quibbles far behind.
Reading or seeing the story I’m always challenged by Margaret—a true and thorough lady in the fullest sense of the word. Yet an imperfect heroine, her shaping is painful and powerful through the story. It’s the great uncertainties of life that shape us most, and also the sufferings—which is hard.
So much of this—the themes of the entire story—are perfectly and brilliantly captured in the ending of the film so I’ll go ahead and discuss the two together.
First, the train appears throughout—beginning and ending the film, tying it completely and richly together with its portrayal of continuation and change. While the ending (with the kissing at a public place) may (or may not) be historically accurate, from a story perspective it’s dazzling. (And here a connected thought: if it wasn’t improper for Lennox to escort her north initially as a friend of the family, then I don’t think it would necessarily be improper for another thorough gentleman—and her promised husband—to do the same. Apparently it’s a fairly short trip and his mother would definitely be present to receive her in Milton.)
But back to the train… In the beginning, while hoping to remain settled, Margaret finds herself uprooted to a new and completely foreign world. And with that catalyst (even as she tries to remain fixed within herself) the ground is pulled from beneath her by the inescapable rushing forward of life. Everything she had deemed simple and immovable—her world, her entire family, even her own mind, opinions, and (at last) emotions—are caught in that great unstoppable impetus.
From the beginning there’s a ripeness and maturity about her. Yet with that softness there’s also an inflexibility—a resistant immobility—dyed into her very character and desire for a solidity of place, for the clearly delineated safety found in habitual routine and a clearly defined social world. There’s safety in stagnation…while change can involve both danger and heartache.
But real change generally comes unasked and unlooked for.
Margaret learns she cannot box herself and she cannot box others in closely defined categories. Yet one of the greatest things I love about the story is that—changing—she doesn’t lose who she is. Lovely and gracious, she’s still Margaret, but—growing in humility—she learns also an active, diligent rest.
So comes the train station at the end. The station—that stopping place in the forward push of life and progress—the stopping place with the dizzying potential for a full face, 180-degree turn. The stopping place encapsulating those few, tangible, epic—fully historic—moments in life that completely reorient us, changing everything. Yet again.
And arriving at such a stopping place, Margaret reaches forward to the future—finding tried and tested strength to lean on, finding again a field of fulfillment and labor…