As a hopeless period drama junkie, I cannot believe I hadn't discovered this little gem before. "North and South" is definitely a timeless classic, yet for some obscure reason it was not publicized much by the BBC. They did not expect the success it had, allegedly. How this is possible, it will always be a mystery to me.
Before I start writing this review, I need to make a few disclaimers.
- When I first watched the series, and for the way-too-many times I re-watched it afterwards, I hadn't read the books and I had no idea what the story was about. I have finally decided to get a copy of the book, but I want to write my review of the film before I read the book. I will add a "part 2" to this post later, and I will make a comparison between book and TV series. This may be a very rare case of book being less enjoyable than the adaptation; let's face it, no words can describe Mr Armitage's smouldering look or sexy voice well enough!... But at the same time the TV adaptation left me wanting for more, so the two versions may actually complement each other! We will see.
- I re-watched these 4 episodes several times and I read quite a lot of reviews online, so I had time to think about it more calmly. My review after watching the TV adaptation for the first time(s) would have been summed up with: "OMG Richard Armitage!!!". Admittedly, I needed many many viewings before other elements in the movie were noticed. Yes, the Armitage effect exists and it still claims victims.
- Spoilers. This post is full of them. You have been warned.
Mr Richard Hale, former clergyman in Helstone, Hampsthire, decides to leave the Church of England on a matter of conscience. Thanks to the help of his friend, Mr. Bell, he finds a house and a job as a private tutor in the northern industrial town of Milton.
The story starts with Mr and Mrs Hale, together with their daughter Margaret and their servant Dixon travelling to Milton. Soon we meet the (drop dead gorgeous) ruthless local mill owner John Thornton, who becomes one of the favourite pupils of Mr Hale. The first time Margaret and John meet is far from ideal, as the man is beating one of his workers for smoking in Marlborough Mills, his factory. Margaret does not have a good opinion on northern tradesmen and especially Mr Thornton, which she makes clear in more than one occasion. At the same time she starts doing some charity for the mill workers and learning about their poor living conditions. She eventually becomes very good friends with some of them. Little by little she gets accustomed to the ways of the northerners. Also little by little her attraction for Mr Thornton grows, even if she does not admit it to herself or to anyone else! Mr Thornton falls in love with her quite immediately and even proposes to her, but is badly rejected by proud and righteous Margaret.
The story has many threads and subplots, like the Union gaining power and organising a strike, Nicholas Higgins from the Union and Mr Thornton, his master, gradually understanding and respecting each other, a few heart-breaking deaths, the speculation craziness, a lot of misunderstandings and misery that will lead to a happy ending... At last!
The comparison with Pride and Prejudice
This comparison is unavoidable. The stories have way too many things in common. But "North and South" is "Pride and Prejudice" meet Dickens, which makes it so much more interesting. Mind you, I am a massive fan of "Pride and Prejudice", especially the one and only adaptation, 1995 BBC with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, of course.
- Pride. Prejudice. Misunderstandings. Of course. Margaret initially idealises the South, with its good manners and culture and sees the Northerners (especially Thornton) as the exact opposite. The Thorntons see the Hales as haughty and snobbish (well how can we blame them!). And there is a lot of pride from both sides, including but not only in the longest and most painful rejection scene ever!
- Mr Thornton and Mr Darcy. Yes they have some similarities. They both make a bad impression at the beginning but little by little their actions show their true good nature. Both Darcy and Thornton are from different classes from the woman they love, even though Darcy belongs to the upper class, while Thornton belongs to the working class. Thornton's family disapproves of Margaret like Darcy's family disapproves on Liz Bennet. However, who would have thought this could ever happen? Darcy suddenly becomes boring in this comparison. He is a privileged man who happens to be a man of integrity and kind nature. Thornton lost his father when he was only a kid - the man killed himself after losing all his money on bad investments. Thornton had to work hard to raise his family (mother and sister) from poverty; he created his fortune from nothing, with hard work and determination - and support from his mother. There are more layers to Mr Thornton. He is a bit ruthless and he is a businessman, but he also honest and he cares about his workers' condition more than other masters. He does not think he is superior to the woman he loves, like Darcy did, but quite the opposite, he thinks no woman would have him. While he initially shows some bad temper (in a very controversial scene I have mixed feelings about), he always has a reasonable explanation for his actions... Even Mr Hale agrees about that :)
- The rejection scene. Very similar scene, in which the man against all odds declares his love to an unsuspecting and outraged woman. The woman rejects the man of course. And she regrets it pretty soon. To be honest, in "Pride and Prejudice" the rejection was understandable, as Mr Darcy's words were quite disrespectful. In Thornton's case, I did not see where Margaret came up with the idea that he thought himself better as he was richer or that he wanted to save her reputation. Personally I would have slapped Margaret in the face. But Thornton is a gentleman.
- Both Darcy and Thornton somehow save the reputation of the women who rejected them, whom they still love after all. Darcy manages to save Liz's sister's Lydia's reputation by forcing Wickham to marry her. Thornton protects Margaret's reputation when she lies to the police about being at the train station at night with a gentleman. Thornton does not know that man was her brother. He suffers like hell thinking that Margaret has a lover and that she has no concerns about her reputation. Still he protects her reputation. BUT. When Liz thanks Darcy, he claims that he did not do it for her family (whom he does not like so much) but for her. When Margaret thanks Thornton, he says that he did not do it for her (whom he no longer loves) but for her father, who he still respects. Serves you right Margaret!
- At some point in the story, both Liz and Margaret admit to themselves and to someone else (Liz to her sister Jane, Margaret to Mr. Bell) that they hate the fact that he (Darcy, Thornton) has a bad opinion of them. They are using almost the same words!
By the way. Mr Darcy who? ;)
The final scene
The first time I watched this film, during the final scene I fell off the chair screaming: "Sandy Welch, if you were man and single I would marry you!". I re-watched that scene over and over again, and I doubt I am the only one who did it. This ending makes me cry because it is outrageously beautiful!
Eventually I came up to the conclusion that is the biggest problem of these 5-minute masterpiece: it is too short!
Anyway, let's proceed with order. When I first found myself staring at the incredible, legendary "Northbound train" scene, I did have a strange feeling. But I ignored it. Only at the umpteenth time I started making sense of what it was all about. It was the very little part of my brain which is reasonable, and that little part of my brain was protesting! That's what it tried to say: this scene is so lame! For all the following reasons:
WTF the Heltstone rose.
When did Thornton become a psychic? How come he decided to go to Helstone to find the roses Margaret never mentioned to him? He even had to "look hard" to find them! This drives me insane!
WTF that kiss in public.
So, it was completely wrong for Margaret to be seen at night with a gentleman at the train station but it is perfectly fine to kiss (and what a kiss!) during the day, in a very crowded train station. Double standards much? How is this making any sense? Was the plan to make the script more modern? Well the story-telling can be made more modern but this is a very anachronistic PDA!?! It is just plain wrong! Moreover... While Margaret exposed herself to public shame in more than one occasion, John Thornton had always been a perfect gentleman until then. He even told off Margaret for not caring about her reputation. What happened to him? Do Helstone roses have psychedelic effects by any chance?
WTF Thornton's sudden self-confidence.
I may have missed something, but until moments before they met at the station, Thornton kept repeating that Margaret had a vert little opinion of him. Suddenly he finds out that she did not have a lover but a brother, which I appreciate sheds a new light on some past events... But... But... As soon as Thornton sees Margaret during his return trip from Helstone, he is a different person! He does not even need to ask if he has another chance with her, like Darcy did with Liz... He does not even need to hear the business proposition... The way he looks at her on the platform says it all... Really? I want to sniff that Helstone rose too!
WTF the unbuttoned collar.
OK this did not disturb me so much. Someone else in their reviews made me notice it. Maybe I did not realise that this as well was not acceptable in those times. Maybe I thought Helstone looked very hot compared to Milton... And maybe I did not mind either. Does anyone remember Darcy in a wet, white shirt? ;)
The rest of my brain silenced the tiny reasonable part every single time I watched that scene.
I love it madly, against all logic.
I adore the way Margaret and John communicate with their hands and how Margaret kisses John's hands.
It was an incredible relief to see the two finally getting together.
I would not change anything.
OMG that kiss. How many women envied Daniela Denby-Ashe in those few minutes?
It felt a bit too rushed an ending.
We all could have done with a longer beautiful scene after so many misunderstandings and so much suffering.
I would have loved to hear Margaret swallowing her pride and apologise for once. Like in "Pride and Prejudice", a bit of humility from both sides wouldn't have done any harm.
And I would have loved to see Mr Thornton and Miss Hale come back to Milton and meet the soon-to-be mother in law. That would have been fun!
As I mentioned before, I too have been a victim of the powerful Armitage effect.
I had to re-watch the whole thing many times before I started appreciating other elements. And the more I watched it, the more I loved all the other characters (what a great cast)... And the less I liked Margaret!
Margaret is perfect, or everybody seems to think so. "Remarkably handsome", educated to a higher standard than most hard-working Northerners, and, as her dying mother put it: "she never does anything wrong". YUCK.
I share the feeling of Mrs and Miss Thornton. Miss Hale is so haughty, and always looking so severe. She walks around looking in the distance, with her angel face, always doing good and helping people... She does not even look human, she is just superior to all of us.
Why John likes her exactly is not clear. I hope the book will help me understand this. But she does him good, by challenging and seeing the kindness in him - Higgins noticed that very well ;)
Seriously, Margaret makes some mistakes like every mortal but she does not even properly admit it. Even when she sort-of apologise she does not sound convincing. She claims more than once that she is not ashamed of what she said or that she did not do anything she would not do again. Rubbish.
The way she rejects marriage proposals is irritating. And by the way in the end she is blatantly using poor friend-zoned Henry and she does not even feel guilty about it.
It is much easier to sympathize with John Thornton even if he beats and kicks a defenseless man in his factory. And not just because he is hot. Because he is human. And he is a bit more humble that Saint Margaret!
Mind you, Margaret does eventually change her point of view and grows up a bit. And most important I forgive her for saving Thornton and his cotton mill.
My favourite quote:
"You once accused me of not knowing what kind of man I rejected. And you were right."
Well, Richard Armitage. Do I need to add anything else?
I wonder why they kept seeing other actors after seeing him. What a mistake they would have done if they had chosen someone else!
His presence is incredible. He says so much with just his eyes or his gestures. Just from the way he walks you understand so much of the character. Let's not even mention his voice.
Oh, but this was about John Thornton, not Richard Armitage. Oops!
I said already a lot about John Thornton in my comparison with Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice".
John is a man who created his and his family's fortune starting from absolutely nothing, and is working hard every day to keep it. He needs to make a profit with his cotton mill, but compared to other business owners he tries to make his workers' conditions as good as possible.
"My workers are healthier. Their lungs don't clog so easily. They work for me longer. Their children work for me longer. Even you can see the profit in that."
"If men eat well they work well. And that'll please masters too, unless they are idiots. Which some of them are."
He is obviously handsome and many young ladies are after him. But he is a workaholic, so that could be the only explanation why he is still single. That, and his slightly worryingly close relationship with a possessive mother.
But deep down Thornton needs love. He does not believe a woman can love him. And to tell the truth, probably most women were attracted by his money... Even Ann Latimer might have found him less attractive when he lost everything.
As mentioned before, his baffling love at first sight for Margaret Hale may be due to the fact that she challenges him. She his a very strong woman, like Mrs Hannah Thornton. Deep down, both John Thornton and Margaret Hale are principled and kind. Only Thornton does not know it yet, while Margaret is so full of herself. Anyway, I think there is great chemistry between the two and that their relationship will bring out the best of both.
I also particularly like the relationship between Higgins and Thornton. The two should hate each other: a master and a Union member! But they are both good at heart and at business. They learn to understand each other's point of view and collaborate for a mutual interest. This is one of my favourite relationships in the whole story.
Oh and have you noticed how sexy Thornton is when he reads with little Boucher or when he smiles at a child? ♥swoon♥
My favourite quote:
"Look back. Look back at me!"
[Best set of facial expressions on the planet. And divine soundtrack too. The bar has been set sky-high now.]
This woman is amazing. I cannot wait to read the book to see if she has been portrayed in a faithful way or if it is another superb acting and directing combination. Hat's off to Sinead Cusack for the most wonderful example of potential mother in law!
I think she is a bit scary and creepy, but I like her a lot. She is always keeping an eye on John and Margaret, as she figured out before everybody else how the story is going to end.
John is really grateful to his mother, and most likely Hannah is behind her son's success with her relentless support. She is very proud of him and for a good reason.
Mrs Thornton does not think Margaret is worthy of her son's love (and she is right) but she is ready to accept her for his son's happiness. 5 stars.
She even promises dying Mrs Hale that she would look after Margaret if necessary!
Hannah Thornton survived her husband's suicide, extreme poverty, and all the highs and lows of John's trade business... She is the strongest character in the story, even though she comes across as very cold and distant: "I'm afraid it is not in my nature to show affection... even when I feel it."
My favourite quote:
"Don't be afraid, John. She has admitted it to the world. I may yet even learn to like her for it. It must have taken a great deal to overcome her pride."
How on Earth Fanny is part of that family I do not know. But I thank her for that. She makes me laugh out loud in a story which is quite sad and heart-breaking.
She does not seem to disapprove on Margaret and John at the beginning, even though she might just enjoy the gossip. Surely she does not like Margaret, and how could she? They are so dramatically different! To be honest it's not easy to like someone as righteous and serious as Margaret is. I wouldn't be best friends with Fanny but I do think she has a point when she comments that miss Hale could do with having just a little humility about her position.
Fanny is quite young, but I doubt she will ever get less silly and frivolous. I like that she tells it as it is... About John, about Milton... I think she is a much needed light-hearted point of view in the story.
My favourite quote:
"Ooh! John is such a stick-in-the-mud!"
Mr Hale is another very well portrayed character.
While I do not fully understand the matter of conscience that made the whole story happen, I accepted it. I guess the story needed to start somewhere, even though I am sure that for many people this whole move to a Northern industrial town is a bit out of order. But I like to think that Richard Hale was a man of integrity, and he did not feel honest in pretending he believed something he no longer believed in. I respect him for that, even though his family had to suffer a great deal because of it.
Strangely enough, Mr Hale seems to be the only one in the family who is able to adapt to the new life and to see the good in it. Unlike his wife who clearly had no intention of living any longer since she was forced to leave Helstone, and unlike his daughter who behaved like a spoiled brat towards the Thorntons in quite a few occasions, he was able to see from the beginning that people are the same everywhere, and he even enjoyed his new position of private tutor.
He is a good man, and I am not surprised he never recovers completely after his wife's death. He married her for love and he is aware of having caused her distress by moving to Milton.
If I have to say something negative about him (and his wife), well, they could have taught Margaret that she is not a princess. But hey, people make mistakes.
Oh and I have to add that Mr Hale is a bit clueless about a certain relationship; he did not even suspect that his best looking pupil is in love with his daughter. For heaven's sake, Hannah Thornton saw it. Fanny Thornton saw it. Mr Bell saw it. Higgins saw it. Hopeless case!
My favourite quote:
"My word, Margaret! To admit that the South has it's faults and that Mr. Thornton has his virtues. What has happened to bring about such a transformation?"
I love this man. Like I loved Bates in "Downton Abbey". Thanks Brendan Coyle!
Higgins is a kind-hearted and principled working class man. He may be a bit passionate, but he is a loving father and a fair player.
He is actively involved with the Union and he is promoting the strike to improve the working conditions. But he does not want any violence; he wants to show the masters that workers are men, not animals. He is heartbroken when the strike fails and angry at Boucher for ruining everything.
He swallows his pride to get back to work after taking care of the 5 little Boucher orphans.
He becomes good friend with Margaret, and what really touches me, he eventually develops a beautiful relationship of respect and mutual understanding with Thornton.
When Thornton has to close down his business, Higgins will collect names of people who are happy to work for Thornton if he is ever in a position of running the business again.
Ok, cunning Higgins kind of uses Thornton's weak point, Margaret, to his own benefit when he needs to be re-employed after the strike, but I think we can forgive him for this. What's most important, Higgins is the person who will eventually tell Thornton that the gentleman seen with Margaret at the station at night was actually her brother.
I LOVE this man! Well both of them :)
My favourite quote:
"Reckon I'll leave my brains at home, then!"
Mr Bell is an interesting character. A bit eccentric Oxford academic, very cheerful and entertaining, but also hiding something... Like the fact that he was investing money in Watson's risky speculations, the very ones John Thornton refused to join!
Also he was planning to marry Margaret! I am sorry he too is destined to die, but I am glad I was spared yet another badly rejected marriage proposal.
And I am very grateful to Mr Bell... Thanks to him the Hales moved to Milton and met the Thorntons, thanks to him Margaret travelled back to Helstone and realised she does not belong in there any more and thanks to him Margaret becomes rich and able to save the sexiest cotton mill owner and his men! Hurrah for Mr Bell!
My favourite quote:
"Oh no, I can’t have this! Mrs. Thornton being wild is bad enough. But romantic? No, no! You wouldn’t call Milton romantic in any way at all, surely?"
Martin Phipps. Are you single and straight?
I love soundtracks. But this is absolutely the most amazing one I have ever listened to. I do not know why this man is not more famous. Surely he's an outrageously talented human being. If he is human, that is.
The "Northbound train" track adds so much to the already beautiful scene that I use it as my alarm clock tune these days. The only problem is that I wake up, sigh, and want to keep dreaming.
And the "Look back" music... Perfection! What a powerful, powerful scene.
Why the OST was never released, is another proof that life does not always make sense.
Wherever you are Mr Phipps, please accept my blessings. And keep composing little masterpieces. The world loves you and thanks you.
Photography, atmosphere and settings.
Just a few words. Some silly reviewers complain that the film is depressing and too dark. Well, it was edited by Dickens, not Walt Disney. I personally love Dickens and dark atmospheres. But I adore the Bronte sisters so maybe my opinion is slightly biased.
The cotton mill, perfectly described as snow-white hell, with the constant sound of the working machines... I'm glad many scenes were taking place in it. It is such a energetic and compelling background setting, I loved it with all my heart.
Anyway. The choice of locations was fantastic, I would not change a single thing. And I was very pleased to spot Edinburgh in several scenes. My beloved pretty Edinburgh. It will always be in my heart. It was the only thing I noticed apart from Richard Armitage the very first time I watched the series. And it is a perfect background for a period drama :)