Monday, May 2, 2011

North and South (2004)

"North and South" is a miniseries produced by the BBC, adapting the 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskett. Initially released with low expectations, it quickly won both an audience and a place in the pantheon of great costume dramas. It certainly deserves its accolades, though I can't help but feel it receives them for the wrong reasons.

As a love story, "North and South" is stellar, though it does seem to tread the same ground as "Pride and Prejudice." Margaret Hale is a clergyman's daughter, a young lady raised in the refined and insular South. But her father begins to question his faith, leaves the parish, and settles as a teacher in the industrial North. It is there that Margaret meets her One True Love: John Thorton, the owner of a cotton mill. She detests him immediately. He obliges by returning the favor. She thinks he's proud; he thinks she's prejudiced. But fate is an unscrupulous fellow, and besides, the crazy kids can hardly keep their eyes off each other.

Like its fellows in the BBC pantheon, this miniseries made me want to read the original novel. I cannot compare the adaptation against the original, but the screenplay stands on its own merits. Like a Jane Austen novel, each character is invested with enough subtle humanity that we understand the motivations of virtually everyone on screen. We even understand Thornton's mother, who disapproves of any match between her son and Margaret, and is therefore the closest thing in the miniseries to a true nemesis. Certainly, some characters behave less than rationally -- such as Thornton's spoiled sister Fanny, or the union worker Boucher who is driven to violence out of a desperate need to feed his children. But we still understand their reasons, and the few whose motivations are left unclear are tangential to the main plot. The subtleties of the characters are at least as surely due to the casting as to the script. Daniela Denby-Ashe carries the film as Margaret, while the supporting cast is just stellar. Anna Maxwell Martin was so effective as Higgin's daughter Bessie that she was given the lead in BBC's adaptation of "Bleak House" (reviewed here) a few years later. Likewise, Richard Armitage made his career from this performance, for he did capture the "quintessence of Darcy" in his portrayal as the smoldering Thornton.

"North and South" may be a charming love story, but its true excellence lies in something else entirely: namely, its treatment of economics. Normally, a period piece set in industrial England would rely on the easy Marxist caricature of factory owners as fat hogs living off the sweat of others. Indeed, we identify ourselves with the female lead, Margaret, who hails form the pre-industrial South and shares our distaste for the factories. But in the novel she falls in love with a romantic hero who is himself one of those despised captains of industry. Unless the screenwriters wanted to lobotomize the original novel entirely, they had to find some way of making such a character palatable. Thus, partly out of necessity, the miniseries was obliged to present the Industrial Revolution from the point of view of the industrialist, and thus engage with real economic history.

Margaret Hale grew up within the highly stratified society of a pre-industrial South. This is why, when they first meet, she assumes that John Thornton was born into wealth. On the contrary, she learns that he was born into the working class, and won his fortune thanks to his canny business sense. Ironically, we share Margaret's assumptions, even though we live in post-industrial society. We fail to realize that the Industrial Revolution was, in the context of its time, a period of almost unparalleled social mobility

Unlike many cinematic businessman, John Thornton almost seems to understand business. At one point he purchases a wheel to ventilate the factory floor, by reasoning that "if my workers are healthier, they live longer and I profit more from their labor." Even though the miniseries doesn't explain further, this should help us realize an almost universally misunderstood truth. Early working conditions were so abysmal not because the factory owners were cruel, but because the owners were (by modern standards) quite poor. They simply couldn't afford to the immediate overhead costs, even when they would profit from better conditions long-term.

At the center of the miniseries is the strike orchestrated by labor leader Nicholas Higgins, in petition for better wages. Through the eyes of Margaret Hale, we are clearly shown the reality of their working conditions, both the sickness and starvation in the urban slums. Yet we also see the economic reality of the industrialists: if the cotton mills are not profitable, the factory will shut down and everyone will lose their jobs. John Thornton behaves cruelly towards the strikes out of this sense of necessity, for their actions were imperiling their own livelihoods. At one point, he chastens Margaret for bringing food to the starving strikers, because her charity would only perpetuate the strike and increase future unemployment. Indeed, when the strike finally does end, we realize that his concerns were justified. The cotton mill goes into default, unable to make up for lost time in settling old accounts. The strikers had effectively shot themselves in the foot, by demanding wages that could not be sustained by the profit margin of the cotton mills.

This prospective tragedy is resolved by a satisfying (if equally ironic) third-act development. For most of the series, Margaret Hale was the epitome of a pre-industrial aristocratic class that disdained manufacturers and capitalists. But when her father and godfather die, successively, she inherits a considerable fortune, including the land on which Thornton's factory is situated. But then she is told by her cousin/accountant that she had made money by speculation, she expresses her displeasure: "Why, I had rather earn it honestly and put it to good use." Yet, almost in the very next scene, she offers to loan a large sum of money to John Thornton, helping him save his factory while earning herself a considerable rate of interest. She may protest that speculation is immoral, but doesn't hesitate to speculate (that is, invest) in actual practice. Perhaps she realizes that speculation might not be the root of all evil, that capitalism can be a highly moral endeavor, that money might make money after all.

As an adaptation of Gaskett's novel, "North and South" succeeds -- indeed, thanks to this miniseries, Gaskett's works have undergone something of a revival in popularity. Simply as a story, and specifically as a love story, "North and South" succeeds as well. Yet nowhere is its excellence in such evidence, as in its exploration of the social reality of industrial England. I have yet to see its equal. "North and South" is a truer glimpse into industrial England than any movie or miniseries I have ever seen, and for that I give this econ rom-com all the praise I can afford.

To purchase this miniseries, check out
North & SouthMiniseries On TV)

1 comment:

  1. The talented Daniela Denby-Ashe is not recognized either in the British film industry or by the Hollywood. Daniela Denby-Ashe can express emotions incredibly without speaking. I was surprised to know that Rosamund Pike could get a role in Hollywood. Daniela Denby-Ashe acted most of the time in North and South. But people went for Richard Armitage. I am really hoping Daniela Denby-Ashe will get a role in Hollywood