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Saturday, April 10, 2010

North & South

I watched North & South, the BBC miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell's book (which I have not yet read). I bought it on a Thursday night, watched half of it before I went to bed and then woke up at 6.30am and watched the rest of it because I couldn't bear to go to uni and have to think about other things before I'd finished it.

I think that's a pretty good sign of how good a miniseries is. I mean, it's so obvious what's going to happen - but I was hooked and the suspense was killing me anyway.

The story is of a young middle-class woman, Miss Margaret Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe), who moves with her father and mother from the south of England to Milton, an entirely different place. Her father has left the Church as a profession, and with it their steady income, and must find students to teach in this industrial, mostly working-class town in the north. Margaret befriends some of the workers, but as the possessor of high ideals cannot stand the mill-owners, especially John Thornton (played by Robert Armitage), who is a stern and unbending master of working class origins.

The blurb on the back of the DVD says it is like "Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience", and I would agree with that, although I did find the strike scenes, especially the speeches by Nicholas Higgins, an emotive working-class "firebrand", very reminiscent of every working-class-anger film that has ever been made (although it is hard not to like Nicholas as a character).

Margaret is a quite delightful character; brooding John Thornton makes me feel all light-headed; his mother is excellently played by Sinead Cusack; his sister Fanny is rather amusing. Other supporting characters are all believable and well-acted, which is a pleasant hallmark of BBC films.

Now, I've heard a lot about North & South, things that convinced me I'd like it a lot, but one of the things I heard from a certain flatmate was that it was "better than Pride and Prejudice"! This, I feel, is a claim that must be addressed.

The two films are both very, very good, but different. Except for Fanny Thornton, North & South is pretty humourless. This is okay - it has darker themes, a passionate love story - and a better comparison in this sense would be to the recent, wonderful Jane Eyre miniseries by the same screenwriter starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson. I just can't compare it to Pride and Prejudice, and it seems like a false comparison to say that just because something is set in the nineteenth century it must therefore be inherently similar or comparable. We wouldn't do that to the twentieth century. Even though the love stories run along the same lines - ie the bones of the story are not dissimilar - the flesh on those bones is very different.

I do think North & South is easier to watch in one sitting, being only four episodes, compared to the six of the BBC Pride and Prejudice. In this sense the film is better structured, and I do sometimes wish that Pride and Prejudice were shorter. North & South's screenwriter has done an excellent job, but I suspect, without having read the book, that Elizabeth Gaskell does not give a screenwriter as much to work with as Jane Austen gave Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice. That is a speculation, of course, but I'll definitely be interested to read the book and find out if I am correct.

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