Like a stroke of dense, black coal against a sheet of smooth, pure silk, the industrial city of Milton, England darkens and seemingly mars memories of Margaret Hale’s beloved southern and rural English home, Helstone. BBC’s 2004 miniseries North & South, is based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North and South, first published in 1855 as a social commentary on English society. Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage co-star in this period drama as they tell the age-old tale of polar people falling in love through mutual dislike and conflict, but just enough discord to realize that they love each other for their differences amidst social tension and turmoil.
This rendition appropriately portrays Margaret Hale and John Thornton as equally proud members of two very different backgrounds and lifestyles, one coming from a warmer, more open, southern, and relative leisurely upbringing, and the other climbing in the industrial north to make his fortune and prove his great ability and standards as a businessman. However, each enters the stage with their own personal tragedies and secrets, all uncovered throughout the series.
After the Hale family moves from Helstone to Milton, the show centers around overcoming discontent among Milton’s mill workers, their strike, whether or not they ask too much of the masters, and if their tactics are justified, as well as whether the masters provide workable conditions and correct wages for each level of worker. Naturally, Margaret appeals more to the compassion of the heart, and Mr. Thornton looks to the logic of the mind for the solution, both of which will provide the actual and effective answer.
The series sticks pretty closely to Gaskell’s novel, honing in on the relationships between the wealthy and the poor, those who have worked for their fortune and those whose circumstance at birth determined their start in the world, but not their end.
Scenery and setting definitely stand out. As the setting moves around, viewers have scenes of fog, steam, steely gray machinery, city stonework, and coal-smudged everything, reminiscent of a man just as hard and cold on the surface while Margaret takes in the hardship of the north. Summery scenes with plenty of bright flowers and vines, and soft, expansive fields under the warm sun and dotted with cottages grace the screen when characters come south. Of course, the romantic relationship shares focus with the social commentary. There are plenty of camera glimpses of a brooding Thornton, a romantically confused and proud Margaret, swaying back and forth between whether or not either of them should admit they admire the other.
This one is for those of you who like a good tear-jerking, heart-pulling period drama with a pleasing ending. It’s also family friendly. Check out all four episodes on Netflix (and read the book).
– Kelly Gatewood
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