by Allan Fish
(UK 2004 235m) DVD1/2
It’s grim up north
p Kate Bartlett d Brian Percival w Sandy Welch novel Elizabeth Gaskell ph Peter Greenhalgh ed Kristina Hetherington m Martin Phipps art Simon Elliott cos Mike O’Neill
Daniela Denby-Ashe (Margaret Hale), Richard Armitage (John Thornton), Tim Pigott-Smith (Richard Hale), Sinead Cusack (Hannah Thornton), Lesley Manville (Maria Hale), Pauline Quirke (Dixon), Brendan Coyle (Nicholas Higgins), Lucy Brown (Ann Latimer), Anna Maxwell Martin (Bessie Higgins), Jo Joyner (Fanny Thornton),
The title makes one recall with horror those God awful Civil War TV epics from the mid eighties with Patrick Swayze, and in doing so think of a clash of two nations to make one. The North & South here is somewhat different in that there’s no war, but there’s a conflict all the same. “It’s not another planet”, Margaret Hale tells her mother referring to the North in the opening sequences of this adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s greatest work, and yet it makes one smile, for those coming from “down South” have been known to think of any place north of Oxford as being full of people for whom “it’s all money and smoke, it’s all they live and breathe.” It really was another planet.
There is conflict here, though, and on several levels. It’s 1851 and former parson Richard Hale takes his fragile wife Maria and wilful daughter Margaret away from their idyllic Hampshire cottage to live in the grim northern city of Milton, where he intends to make a living giving reading lessons and lectures to men of means in the culture deprived North with an idea of bettering themselves. The owner of the local cotton mill John Thornton meets and falls for Margaret, but they first meet in unfortunate circumstances and she rejects his suit. And as his hopes are dashed, his mill begins to fail.
Some have called it Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience, and there are some similarities in the central relationship but the characters are poles apart. Their conflict is not merely one of pride or prejudice, or even of class standing, but one of the moral high ground, tradition and progress. And woven between that, like the cotton on the jennies in the mill, the age old struggle between bosses and workers that remains a quandary at the heart of society to this day. The biggest difference between Austen and Gaskell is in their heroines; Elizabeth Bennet was witty, but could hardly be seen as a modern woman. Margaret is just that while maintaining a sublime contradiction, of being a woman who the modern audience could identify with without becoming an anachronism. John and Margaret’s love for each other not so much a slow-burner as a gradual thaw, their initial cold to each other perfectly captured in a first meeting where Maragret first enters the factory like Alice through the mirror, into an industrial wonderland with flakes of cotton floating like snowflakes in the air. How perfect and ironic it is then that when they finally melt into each other’s arms it’s as quite literal opposites attracting, on trains going in opposite directions brought to a stop in a station. Here North & South gives us the single most achingly beautiful romantic moment in all televised costume drama. A hand clasp on a platform bench, one looking into the other’s eyes, the other shyly avoiding contact, all played out to a devastating theme by Phipps which bears comparison with the simple majesty of Arvo Pärt.
After pausing to praise the photography, sets, costumes, locations and a typically astute script from Sandy Welch, let us then praise the cast, all absolute perfection; Pigott-Smith a million miles from his trademark slime-balls as the kindly father, Coyle as the honest working union man, Maxwell Martin as his ill-fated daughter, a splendidly accented Cusack as the fierce Northern matriarch, even EastEnders’ Joyner as the flighty, selfish Fanny. And at the centre, an imperiously stubborn and brooding Armitage as the kindly boss who doesn’t dare believe that such a woman could care for him, and the frankly irresistible Denby-Ashe, another one-time EastEnders graduate, an Anglo-Saxon double of Emilie Dequenne and worthy of the comparison.