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It's been a while since the BBC has given a outstanding period drama. I've seen North and South when it was first aired in Australia on the ABC TV, where there was very little promotion about it. And what a surprise it was. I brought it immediately once it was available on DVD in Australia.
I've just finished watching it (for the hundredth time) and is still stands the test of time. How on Earth did the BBC managed to get a near perfect cast for this production is simply miraculous and the lead actors were virtually unknown at the time! Elizabeth Gaskell works may not be well known, however Mrs Gaskell is to be given credit. She was one of the first to write how exactly the common man, at the time, spoke with imperfect English. She witnessed the decay and filth, breathed the smoke of industry and saw the poverty of the workers, when she lived in Manchester with her preacher husband; North and South, the novel, depicts all this.
This adaptation of Mrs Gaskell's North and South is faultless and the acting is sublime.Some lines and scenes are from the book, while others parts are adapted to suit the small screen and modern audiences. For example, Margaret in the book never went to the mill, where as she does in the TV mini series. Nevertheless it does follow the book closely, far closer than Mrs Gaskell's other novel turned into a mini series Cansford (2007).
Daniela Denby-Ashe is absolutely ideal as the beautiful, privileged and head strong Margaret Hale who is uprooted from her beloved Helstone to the industrial town of Milton by her father Mr Hale. It is in Milton where Margaret's middle class ideals are challenged and she slowly grows as a person of real character; along this journey she slows admires and eventually falls in love with the local mill owner John Thornton (a self made man who has successfully, raised his family and himself out of poverty, whom she considers to be socially inferior) . This challenging role allows Ms Denby-Ashe to stretch her acting abilities, develop her character and her portrayal as Margaret is simply stunning. There are scenes, combined with great lighting and the Victorian costume, where Daniela is gorgeously beautiful. What a contrast to see her in this, then the dumbing character of Janey in My Family.
Richard Armitage is John Thornton! He breathed life in to this character and gave him dimensions. Mr Armitage portrays him as man with many facets: flawed, ruthless, angry, intelligent but also with a honest and frank countenance. Cannot think of any other English actor to portray John Thornton as Richard Armitage has. Not many actors can pull off expressions that can convey a range of emotions with a look and not uttering a single word. His screen presence is charismatic and riveting, but well balanced, as to not overwhelm Ms Denby-Ashe presence on the small screen. Simply put, the man has TALENT! which puts to shames his contemporaries thespians in Hollywood.
And the chemistry between the two leading actors makes watching the end worthwhile. (Puritans would gasp in horror, but if you read the book, you'll know what I mean, when I state, although I loved the book, I prefer this modern updated ending). But lets not forget the supporting cast.
Sinead Cusack, a delight to watch as Mrs Hannah Thornton. To witness Richard Armitage and Sinead, having similar characteristics and as well as mannerisms, even looks, you'd be lead to believe they are related. And Mrs Thornton's love for her son John, is beautifully enacted, in the scene before and after the proposal.
Great to see Tim Piggot-Smith as Mr Hale (a weak character) in a role that does not stereo cast him as villain. Leslie Manville as Mrs Maria Hale, another weak character, is virtually unrecognizable. Brendan Coyle does justice to the character of Nicholas Higgins; notice the twinkle in his eye when he reveals some truths to Thornton.
Anna Maxwell Martin as Bessie Higgins, Pauline Quirke as Dixon, Jo Joyner as self absorbed Fanny Thornton and Brian Protheroe (Mr Bell) all have their moments in the spotlight. Finally, Rupert Evans, surprising to see him cast as Frederick Hale, and he does look a bit like Daniela Denby-Ashe.
Sandy Welch script is placed in the careful hands of director Brian Percival who manages to film N&S beautifully. Edinburgh as Milton in the 1800 gives a wonderful feel, for the the industrialization of England, the cotton mills and the Union movement. Locations and set design are a treat, which give the feel of the Victorian era. The rigid social structure is highlighted not only in the actors accents, speech and manner of dress but also where they live. Just look at the difference between the household of the Higgins, Hales and Thornton not to mention London, where Edith lives.
The costumes give depth and assist the actors with their character; delightful to see Daniela in a wide brim hat than a bonnet. Richard Armitage look devilishly handsome with or without a cravat.
Lastly music by Martin Phipps, this man can compose and it shone in N&S. The score plays beautifully to important moments in the story. Margaret and John's simple piano tune, subtly overlaid, when there is an emotional development in their relationship or when they are both internalizing their feels for each other; to the swelling music when something dramatic has happened, all fits in well with the overall production.
North & South is proof that you don't need state of the art special effects, million dollar budgets and overpaid actors with star power or sex scenes. A simple story can touch a thousand souls...for it connects to the emotional human side and you feel for the characters as they travel on their journey, and North & South has all that.
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