Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review ~ North and South: BBC ‘04 with Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe

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!

The ’04 North and South and I have a long history together. I’ve seen it three times in one month and I’ve gone several years without seeing it at all. (As a note, I do not recommend the three times in one month approach. Even the very best, most excellently well told story is hard pressed to keep its mystery after three consecutive viewings in a short period. Two is perfect and delightful.) Recently it had been about two years as I had thought it would be best to let it sit. To let myself sit. And, due to various causes and what with one thing and another (seeing the ’72 N&S, the ’95 P&P, the ’09 Emma and so forth) during the sitting duration I was even beginning to wonder if it was all I’d remembered.

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…

So… yes. North & South: one of my favorite stories—romantic, powerful, beautiful, and entirely magnificent!!


  1. Love your review! I've heard of this version of North & South several times; I must remember to try and actually see it one day.

    1. Adaline,
      Thank you---I'm so glad you enjoyed it! And I hope you can see it soon. ;) Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. Umm, yes. Yes to everything. This is probably my favorite review of one of my favorite movies - thank you so much for doing this!!!

    1. Reyna,
      Wow....thank you! And I'm so glad you love it, too! :) (I actually thought of you several times while writing so I'm delighted that you enjoyed it! ;))

  3. So. On my list of Must Sees for 2015, this is at the top. I remember your review of the Patrick Stewart version too, and want to see both.

    1. Hamlette,
      Excellent!!! ;) Honestly, I can't decide which I think you'd like better.... Of course (obviously :)) I think this one's all around amazing---and I think you'd like the drama---but Patrick Stewart's very good, I don''t know. :) Can't wait till you see them!

  4. Ahh! I MUST see this! It looks absolutely amazing, and my best friend loves it. And besides that, Richard Armitage is Mr. Thorton... Perfection! (-: (I should probably read the book first, though)

    1. Elizabeth Anne,
      I hope you can see it soon! I realized I didn't say much about the actors specifically (mostly because I tend to think of them as so intertwined with the roles), but yes---hem!---absolutely.... RA is amazing in the role. :)

      Also (contrary to my general practice), I actually saw this before reading the book for the first time, but it would definitely depend on whatever you prefer.

    2. I may have fainted due to a certain Mr Armitage! :D Got the book for Christmas so can't waiit :D :D :D

    3. You got it for Christmas!? That's so awesome! I'm seriously jealous XD You'll have to tell me all about it! (no spoilers, of course...)

    4. Evie,
      Yes (ahem! ;)) exactly.... :) And hooray! So glad you got the book!

  5. Heidi, this is a GREAT review of one of my all time favorites, North and South. You did a splendid job! And yes, the casting was amazing -- especially Mrs. Thornton, Margret, and Mr. John Thornton. After reading the book I didn't think anyone was going to be able to capture their characters in movie form, but I was very wrong.

    1. Sarah,
      Thank you and I'm so glad you liked it! (I was thinking of you, too, while writing it. ;)) It was actually pretty hard to work on as, when it comes to North & South, I start falling so short of words. Partly because I love it so much---and partly because, I think, the story itself defies that kind of organization. I keep being reminded of the Flannery O'Connor quote: "A story that is any good can't be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you." I feel that way strongly about N&S. It's a rather....rugged story, but there are so many facets to it, so much under the surface. I'm sure I'll be writing on it again. ;) And meanwhile, I'm so thrilled you enjoyed the review!! :)

  6. managed to express everything I feel about watching this, and you made it make sense. N&S is one of those things that, when I finish watching it, I'm in this sort of euphoria of I LOVE THIS SO SO MUCH, but I can never coherently say why. It's such a big story: deep, serious, and, like you said, real. I totally agree. It's rough, hard, and sad; but that only makes the characters come shining through brilliantly. :-)

    1. Joanna,
      Thanks so much!! And I love how you put it, too. The euphoria ;)---and the hugeness of the story that leaves you trying to catch hold even as you identify with its magnificence---and the rough-hewn, yet all the more brilliant shining of the characters. Yes, exactly how I feel.... It pulls your heart out.

  7. *applauds* Yes. Yes, yes. You quite literally summed up everything I love about this gorgeous story so perfectly. Thank you for the wonderful review! By the by, do you prefer the book or the movie of N&S?

    ~ Arwen Undomiel

    1. Arwen Undomiel,
      Thank you! And I'm so glad you love it, too!

      Which do I prefer? Oh, dear....ouch! Well, honesty comes paramount, so I'll say....the movie. :) But----but---that's because I love it so tremendously in it's own right. The book is definitely one of my top favorites books as well. ;)

  8. Oh, my goodness! Yes! I love N&S to the very depths of my soul!!! Everything about it was so, so beautiful: the costumes, the sceneries, the cast, including the amazing Mr. Armitage. He just fits in so well with the series. I love Daniela, as well. The two are amazing people. They are so good at expressing emotion. The characters they played are so perfect together, it's not even funny. John and Margaret are the sweetest couple I have ever seen in my life. I have to give them a nomination for The Best Couple.
    I must say that the characters of Nicholas and Bessy Higgins were also amazing. I loved those two. They are just so sweet. And so very strong. And, who doesn't love Mrs. Thornton?
    Personally, like most N&S fans, the train station scene is my favorite scene. It was so beautiful and romantic. I'm just going to leave it at that.
    I read the book and it, too, was amazing, especially the end part. Now, all I can think about is N&S. It's truly inspiring. I love things that take place in nineteenth-century England. As a side note, I love its fashion. Its dresses are amazing, like the ones Margaret Hale wore. I wish I had some of those vintage clothes and wear them like it's nobody's business. They are just so beautiful.
    And let us not forget the soundtrack by Martin Phipps. I listen to it all the time, especially the one called "Northbound Train". Every time I listen to it, I imagine the glorious scene. It's so beautiful.
    I shall end my comment as is. I should love to talk about my favorite show some other time!!

    1. NorthboundTrain,
      What a delight to find your lovely long comment! And yes, indeed. Profound and hard-edged, N&S is AMAZING. I keep returning to it over and over and it's one of my greatest heart stories. ;) I love it!!

      And thank you so much for commenting -- I so enjoyed all your thoughts and would love to discuss it more anytime! :)

    2. What do you think is your favorite scene in N&S? I think one of my favorites would be the end scene. It's just so sweet, I want to cry! :D :D

    3. Northbound Train,
      Ohhhh, what a question!!! Yes, I have to say the end scene. It's so gorgeous and powerful and beautiful and achingly happy. ;D

  9. Oh, I'm so glad I found a review of this!! I just read the book about a few weeks ago and got this from the library (but what with one thing and another haven't watched it). I was at first excited to see it but then started to wonder about the danger inherent in modern movies of changing everything... So I'm glad to hear it is your favorite period drama. ;)

  10. I am curious, though... What was it they changed about the Higgins family?

    1. Awdur,
      Oh good, I'm so happy you enjoyed it/found it helpful!! The book is one of my all time favorites. (Isn't it splendid??) And yay, I'm SO excited you're planning to see the movie soon! (This is funny, but what with all the wedding preparations and sewing going on I've actually seen this movie twice this summer and am currently very much in a N&S frame of mind. ;) Super funny, isn't it?)

      About the Higgins family: well, expanded on, this would actually make a good comparison blog post (so maybe that'll come along someday too), but in short, I feel like in the film they just rounded them out more. Also, the film powerfully maintains the themes of eternity and heaven, etc., but (to me) the presentation is much more subtle. So, for example, I feel like right up to the end Bessy particularly is more emotionally invested in the whole strike than she is in the book, which I really love. Again, they're all VERY much in period and -- personally -- I think the changes all tie together beautifully. Does that make any sense/help answer your question? :P

      I'd absolutely LOVE to hear if you enjoy it!! :)

  11. What a beautiful review of the masterpiece that is the BBC's adaptation of N&S. I've read a piece that analyzed how the film made symbolic use of characters looking out windows: representing their individual perspective on events. There so are many great window scenes.
    But I loved how you pointed out the recurring visual emphasis on hands. The resolution of the romantic separation is resolved with hands.
    I think Margaret and Thornton were searching for home. And found it in finding each other.
    If you still love all things N&S, you're welcome to take a peek at my blog and comment on any old discussion there:


Oh, you're thinking of leaving a comment! How entirely lovely -- thank you and please do!! :) I just ask that all comments be God-honoring and edifying. (And btw, I LOVE comments on old posts! ;))

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