This battle between North and South stops at 4pm for high tea.
North & South is based on the 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell; it is the second of four socially conscious novels and the most well-known by the English writer. North & South was originally published as a 20 part serialized novel in Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine, “Household Words.” Mr. Dickens, who was also Elizabeth’s editor, thought her story to be tedious, and took strict control over her work, forcing Elizabeth to cut the story from 22 parts to 20, and even giving her novel its title. Elizabeth wanted to call it “Margaret Hale” after the story’s heroine, but Dickens won out — after all, it was his magazine — saying, “North & South” seems better. It encompasses more and emphasizes the opposition between people who are forced by circumstances to meet face to face.” And you know, I think he was exactly right.
19-year-old Margaret Hale is returning to her parents’ home after living in London for 10 years as a companion to her wealthy cousin. She comes back to a mother who has grown bitter with a husband who doesn’t want to improve his station in life, and a father who has decided to leave his post as a parish pastor (whoa, a plethora of P’s), and move his family to the industrialized Northern town of Milton. Once there, Margaret has an immediate affection for the working poor in town, and takes their side in a dispute with management. The resulting strike pits her against cotton magnate John Thornton. As the situation escalates between Thornton and his workers, Margaret’s life is also thrown into turmoil as tragedy and rumors plague the young woman’s life.
It’s 1975 and Patrick Stewart has hair. No I’m not talking about some crazy episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s actually the year 1975, where Stewart and his hair star in the 19th century BBC 2 mini-series North & South. This story of life during the industrial revolution in England is a low-budget but wonderfully acted piece of art that I enjoyed far more than I had anticipated.
It’s a tale of the haves against the have nots, but also the nouveau riche verses old money. Our heroine Margaret is somewhere in between; she comes from a good family but her mother married beneath her station in life, so they live of modest means. There is a definite empathy towards men and women who work in horrible conditions, and are barely able to feed their families. But director Rodney Bennett does a great job of portraying each side as fully formed human beings. The poor aren’t saintly victims, and the industrial manufacturers aren’t one dimensional monsters, devoid of all feeling and emotion.
Rosalie Shanks balances her performance of Margaret between the frail and dainty female common to the time period, and a strong force who befriends the men and families who depend on the cotton mill to live. Margaret exists in a time when women were to be seen and not heard, and any innocent conduct that differs from the norm can leave one’s reputation in ruins. Shanks is wonderful as the young Margaret, a fallible yet endearing woman who does what’s right regardless of the consequences.
There’s no arguing that the Patrick Stewart of today is a fine actor. However, in North & South we see him in the early stages of his craft. His portrayal is a bit over the top in parts, but you can see hints of the Stewart we know and love from his many movie and television roles. As John Thornton, he is a stern yet caring man who spent most of his life working to provide for his mother and sister. He immediately falls for Margaret, and through their rocky relationship, Thornton remembers that at one time he was in the same position as his employees; which helps him drastically change his attitude towards how he sees and treats them. Most of the cast are unrecognizable to us on this side of the pond, but they all turn in very fine performances.
The whole series feels much like a stage play; with just one camera used in every scene, minimalist sets, and the actors playing to the cheap seats instead of the camera. The budget must’ve been a factor because there are huge gaps in time that are just glossed over as the film jumps sometimes months ahead. Don’t worry though, you won’t get lost, because Bennett makes it very easy to follow along, using the characters own words to tell the audience just where they are in the story. So if you’re looking for a slick modern production, get that out of your pretty little head right now. This is a no nonsense presentation where acting and story are key — not aesthetics.
North & South is a standard def 1.33:1 presentation, that looks every bit like a series made in the mid-’70s. This DVD has not been digitally restored, so the colors are dull due to the age of the film, and some scenes are grainy. The Dolby stereo is subpar compared to what we’re used to today, nonetheless, you can still clearly make out the dialogue, even with the heavy English accents. Talk about a barebones release; there are a few BBC series advertisements, but there are no other special features to speak of.
North & South isn’t a war between the states, but it is a war of sorts, pitting rich against poor and old money against new. With the stellar acting and fine directing, it’s easy to overlook its visual and audio flaws. Just pretend you’ve taken a time machine back to the 1970s, and you’re sitting in front of your Quasar television set enjoying this well done historical melodrama.
Engage Number 1! Not Guilty.