Journey 119: North and South BBC Mini Series

north and south poster

An advantage of falling in love with a particular movie, such as The Hobbit, is a deepening appreciation of actors who were previously unknown to me. One such actor is Richard Armitage, who portrayed Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company of dwarves. His ability to play Thorin, from an angry displaced Son of Durin, through his descent into dragon sickness and his ascent out of that dark madness to a powerful, selfless king was magnificent to behold.

I’ve watched for other movies of his, and was delighted Monday to come across an earlier work of his, North and South, released as a four part series on BBC TV in 2004. It was especially fine to discover this two disc DVD at the Joplin Public Library, where I checked it out for seven days! Tonight, after a peaceful time in the back garden, soaking up the setting sun’s rays, I had the joy of watching part one of this British series.

North and South stars Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Tim Pigott-Smith, Lesley Manville, Sinéad Cusack, Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin. Directed by Brian Percival, this romantic drama is based on the novel by the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell. This TV mini series is unrated and has a run time of 3 hours and 55 minutes.

Margaret Hale (Denby-Ashe) is the central character in this adaptation, uprooted from her beloved rural village of Helstone, south of London, by her father (Pigott-Smith), a former vicar. Along with her mother, Maria (Manville), intelligent and strong willed Margaret has a difficult time adjusting to the much more industrial, poverty stricken northern city of Milton. Richard Hale, seeking employment after leaving the church, gives lectures on Sunday afternoons to bored mill workers and secures a few private students. His first such student is John Thornton (Armitage), the most prominent and successful cotton mill owner in Milton.

Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s relationship gets off to a rocky start, as Margaret witnesses an altercation between Thornton and a worker caught smoking in the mill. Although Margaret’s father encourages his daughter to extend grace to the hard working people of the north, she struggles to see them as her father does…not so different from the people she loves in the south. But the dirty, smoky city is not like the pastures and woods surrounding her former village and the people are not as friendly, many of them suspicious of her kindness and good intentions. Margaret continues to reach out to the mill workers and their families nevertheless, concerned about their lack of food and their health. The mill sorting and weaving rooms are full of bits of white cotton fluff that float and swirl in the air like snow. The men, women and children who work in those rooms breathe in the fibers and suffer lung diseases as a result.

north and south brooding Thornton

Mr. Thornton vexes Margaret. She sees him as privileged, especially after meeting his proud mother (Cusack). After rudely refusing to shake Thornton’s hand while he’s a guest in her parents’ home, Margaret learns that his family struggled through years of poverty after John’s father invested unwisely, lost huge sums of money, and then killed himself. Rather than let creditors go unpaid, the family got by on very little for years while working hard to survive. John became who he is by hard work, strict rules for his workers, and scrupulous attention to detail.

As Margaret and John are squaring off, learning about each other, disliking each other initially, yet drawn toward each other, the mill workers in Milton are meeting after hours. Worker Nicholas Higgins (Coyle) whose daughter Bessy (Martin) becomes Margaret’s first friend in her new town, is urging the rest of the mill workers to join together in demanding better pay and working conditions, and to rebel if those demands are not met, when the time is right.

At the end of episode one, Margaret, writing to her cousin back in the south, admits that she is lonely and that everywhere there is conflict and unkindness. Referring to the mills and the rooms of swirling fluff, she concludes her letter with, “ I believe God has forsaken this place. I have seen hell and it is white…it is snow white.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this first part of North and South. The cinematography and costuming are excellent, and the story flows well under the direction of Brian Percival. There is tension and a clash of classes, misunderstandings and learning to accept others who are different. There is sexual tension as well, building between Margaret and Thornton…repulsion, confusion, but strong attraction as well. I am unfamiliar with most of the actors in the mini series, however, they are all accomplished in their roles. Richard Armitage as Thornton is amazing. This man has brooding down to an art! I can’t help but catch glimpses of Thorin in the dark eyes, the tight lipped smile, the short, sharp comments.

I’m enjoying a look at some of Armitage’s early work. And I am highly anticipating the next three episodes, and the slow dance between Margaret and Thornton as their passions build. The British do drama really well and I am grateful I found this DVD set!

north and south John and Margaret

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