Film: “North and South” – My Second Take

24 Jun

Since Kristie(J) was so kind to put me on her list of “North and South”-Crusaders, I’ll have to do better than the measly comments I scribbled down about it last year. So this weekend I battled The Boyfriend for control over the TV. At the moment, the European Football Championship is taking place here and for the last two weeks, every night there was football on TV, so TV time is scarce for me. But Sunday afternoon, it was my turn and I settled down to watch North and South for the ?th time.

Warning: freaking long post ahead and I still think there are things I didn’t mention. Anyway:

North and South

I’m not 100% sure but I like to think I first read about North and South on Kristie (J)’s blog. It’s fitting. After some difficulties – getting BBC DVDs here in Germany is rather expensive (here’s a bit more about that) – I got it at the end of November 2007. Which lead to the post linked to above.

The film itself

Right from the beginning, I was captivated. But the scene that made me feel punched in the stomach for the first time comes at the end of the first episode. Margaret fell asleep while writing a letter to her cousin Edith. Contrary to the optimistic spin she put on her new life in Milton in her letters until then, now we get her unvarnished view:

“I wish I could tell you Edith how lonely I am; how cold and harsh it is here. Everywhere there is conflict and unkindness.
I think God has forsaken this place.
I believe I have seen hell.
It’s white.
It’s snow-white.”

These words are accompanied by very moving and fitting music. In this scene, the camera moves through the mill. You see people working and white strands of cotton are floating through the air; it ends with John Thornton walking from the left to the right in the background. And really, the line: “I believe I have seen hell. It’s white – snow-white” – every time I see this scene, this line gets to me.

I knew then I was in for something great.

The actors. Of course, I have to mention Richard Armitage here. He’s able to convey so much with the expression on his face (most famous here probably the “look back” scene). And Brendan Coyle has an amazing presence on the screen in his role as Nicholas Higgins. I include two actors with smaller roles here because really, all actors are great in the role they play: Jo Joyner as Fanny Thornton and Ben Crompton as the police inspector.

Small things I liked:

  • the way the yellow rose is used
  • the contrast between warm and sunny colours for the south (Helston) and dark and muted colours for the north (Milton)
  • the handshake thing
  • the only time Margaret is dressed completely with white clothes is the day she saves John in front of the angry strikers
  • Boucher drowning in purple water and the next time Fanny Thornton is on screen, she’s wearing a purple dress

The story

North and South, at least in the way it is represented in the film, is a densely layered story. You can watch it multiple times, and every time, there’s something new to discover. The words that catch most of the things I see at play in it are (at the moment) change and morals (doing what is right). It’s change that is motivated by industrialization and it’s alluded to with the title. But there is also change that is not completely driven by industrialization, change on a personal, individual level. And combined with it is the question of what is the right thing to do. The romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale is both representative of change on the greater scale of industrialization and on the smaller scale of individual life and intertwines these two (most notably in the proposal scene, I think).

The first hint of change is right in the first scene. A train is moving and in it sits a young woman who has a yellow rose (?) in her hands. She’s on her way north together with her parents because of her father’s decision to move there. It’s a change motivated by the conscience of Margaret’s father. They arrive in Milton, an industrial town, where life and people are clearly influenced by and live with the change brought about with industrialization.

Especially in the first two episodes, there’s a strong connection between change and morals. Early on, while Margaret is house hunting in Milton, she overhears a conversation about why her father moved to Milton. It’s the first conversation where a question is touched upon that gets asked again and again in North and South: What role should morals play in relation to work? Are there circumstances where conscience is appropriate when you have to work to live?

North and South illustrates this with a look at different families and persons and the way they deal with it:

  • There is Mr Hale, Margaret’s father. He uproots his family and leads them into an uncertain future because he couldn’t reaffirm his belief in the Book of Common Prayer with good conscience. He doesn’t think about how to make a living; his decision is completely ruled by his conscience. There is a great scene with his wife telling him what she thinks about his action. Did he do the right thing?
  • There’s the case of Margaret’s brother Frederick. He’s sought as a mutineer because he couldn’t stand by and see his Captain abuse his position (beating children). Did he do the right thing?
  • On the other hand, there is John Thornton. At a dinner (paraphrasing here) he answers Mr. Hale’s question about how he decides what to do that sound business sense governs his decisions not some moral law. Did he do the right thing?
  • There’s Nicholas Higgins’s family, and Boucher’s family and they again represent another side, obviously more directly opposed to John Thornton than Mr. Hale, for they are the ones who have to suffer the most under the changing working conditions. Did they do the right thing?

Whereas the first two episodes concentrate on asking the question about morals and change, I see the last two episodes as more about the consequences of the changes. The strike is over and there’s work to do. And at least at Marlborough Mill things get better with time: the cooking house where the workers can eat. But there is also a darker side: people die. Bessy Higgins dies as a result of her work; Boucher because he’s “driven mad” by circumstances related to work; Margaret’s mother with the implication being that her death was the result of the move from the South to the North. And later Margaret’s father dies also.

John Thornton and Margaret Hale are the characters where change and the question of morals is at play and intertwines on both the larger (social) and smaller (individual) scale the most. Margaret Hale is the character whose change is chronicled best in North and South. With her, the film starts and with her, the film ends. At the beginning, her life changes because of her father’s decision. At the end, her life changes because of her decision. (By the way, I really like the mirroring of the first and last scene in this film.) During these two points in her life, she learns a lot about herself and about other people and their way to live. She learns to appreciate them. There’s for example the scene where she wants to write a letter to her cousin Edith, finds she can’t confide in her and then goes to visit Bessy to talk with her about what’s on her mind. At the end of the film, Margaret went from a”traditional” way of living to someone who engages with the change brought about by industrialization.

John Thornton’s life is maybe touched the most by industrial change of all the characters in that he knows about the ups and downs first hand. After the speculation of his father went wrong, he worked his way up from poverty. At the start of the story, he and his family are wealthy (again, I assume) but the mill gets in trouble and at the end, he loses all. And Margaret represents change on the personal level. She challenges and changes him (as he does she). For example, he goes out to speak to the strikers because she urges him to do it. He “befriends” Higgins which, in some way, makes their HEA possible.

The romance

The romance in North and South uses one of my favourite premises: unrequited love. John is attracted to Margaret very early. He on the other hand had a very bad start in regard to her opinion of him. The first time they meet, he beats one of his workers for smoking while at work in the mill. So he starts at the lowest possible point in Margaret’s estimation. His attraction keeps growing even though it becomes clearer and clearer (and in an ever more painful way) that she doesn’t care for him and “won’t have him.” At the beginning there’s for example the not given handshake. Margaret’s rejection of his marriage proposal confirms his believe that she doesn’t care for him. But it doesn’t stop there. He comes to think she has a lover and it ends with the lowest point possible for him: he compromises his principles for her (there are at least two instances where his adherence to truth are mentioned). He knows Margaret lied when she said she wasn’t at the train station but he doesn’t say so. This leads to the brilliantly filmed scene where he tells Margaret that he looks to the future and he no longer has any passion for her.

Margaret’s father asks her at one point what brought about the transformation in her opinion about John. At the exhibition in London it’s clear that some change in her opinion about him has occured. She “defends” him when she sees how he’s treated and perceived by others. There are some more instances and then there’s the marriage of his sister Fanny where she sees him with another woman and realizes that and what she has “lost.” In that view, Margaret follows a reversed path to John’s in terms of admiration: he starts out with admiration that diminishes over the course of the story (but he can’t help himself with the attraction thing) whereas Margaret goes from zero admiration to a lot until she says to him at one point: “I have a better opinion of you than you of me at the moment, I feel” (paraphrased).

I know I’m so far out of the window with what I’ll say next that I’m standing on thin air, but anyway. The famous scene with the carriage driving away and John looking at it and saying: “Look back. Look back at me” always makes me think of the scene at the end of episode 1 when Margaret speaks of hell and white (above). The carriage and the swirling snow flakes are only filmed for a short time but they remind me of that scene. The most part of this scene is a close up of Richard Armitage’s face while he looks after the carriage (and isn’t it heartbreaking when you know she didn’t turn back because of the expression on his face?) But I also imagine what he sees and that’s a dark (black) carriage driving away from him through swirling white snow flakes and taking Margaret away from him. So I like to believe he also thinks he’s looking at hell, and that hell is snow-white. Awwwh!


I’ll finish this freaking long post (anyone read it all?) with a youtube video. It’s not a very surprising one but it’s the best in terms of a fitting end to a great story. It also features one of the best first kisses ever in a film. Here it is:

12 Responses to “Film: “North and South” – My Second Take”

  1. Marg Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 10:44 pm #

    Really good post on one of my favourite mini-series!

  2. Kristie(J) Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 11:49 pm #

    What a grand, grand summation of this series! There is something new to see and ponder on every time you watch it isn’t there?
    The symbol of the yellow rose. She is holding one at the beginning and holding one at the end. Henry gives her one and it means nothing as they are in abundance. John gives her one and she is thrilled because they are so scarce.
    I love what you have to say about the moral ambiguity of the series. Mr. Hale and Frederick seem to do the right thing, but it turns out it’s the wrong thing.
    And one thing I’ve noticed – in the scene where Mr. Hale explains why he uprooted his family, Mrs. Hale back up further and further until she in totally in the shade – as if foreshadowing she has given up on life. I find her the most frustrating character in the whole series.
    And I love that John Thornton, being such a moral character, goes against his morals to save Margaret. In the first episode, he just seems to be spouting them, but by the third and fourth episode, we see he really does live them, they really are who he is. He could have saved his family, but at the expense of his workers, so he chose not to do it.
    And what a great observation about John looking at Margaret through the snow as she drives away! I never thought of it as his view of hell. And sadly, we think that’s about as bad as it’s going to get for him, but it’s not. Yet the worse it gets, the more human he becomes.
    As you can see, I can discuss this series ad nauseum – because it’s so much more than just a great love story – that *laughing* happens to contain the best first kiss I’ve ever seen too.

  3. Stacy ~ Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 3:14 am #

    What an eloquent post, and you touched on a lot of things that resonate with me. Great re-cap. I never get tired of this series.

  4. Taja Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 9:43 am #

    Marg – thank you. I think you can guess it’s one of my favourite mini-series too. :)

    Kristie – thank you.
    The yellow rose – when John gives it to Margaret he says something like “you have to look hard to see it.” It’s such a great line because it clearly is about more than just finding a flower.
    Mr. Hale and Frederick – when compared I would say Mr. Hale acted without thinking of the ones dependant on him and Frederick acted because he thought of others and not of himself. The scene with Mrs. Hale gained more and more weight the more often I saw it. It’s a great scene.
    John – out of consideration for The Boyfriend I’ll just say *sigh* There are quite a few scenes in the film in which Margaret does turn back to look at John, and then when she doesn’t do it when it “counts” … awwwh
    The Boyfriend would say that I can’t stop talking about this series either. There was a strange cross-eyed look in his eyes Sunday evening … ;)

    Stacy – thank you. I had a hard time writing the post so I’m glad to hear that I managed to get my thoughts across. There’s just so much going on and nearly everything is connected that I found it difficult 1. to settle on the things I wanted to write about and 2. to get them in some kind of order. So thank you.

  5. LeeAnn Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 7:35 pm #

    What a great review! Ok now I want to go home and watch it again :o) I have to say that “I believe I have seen hell. It’s white. It’s snow-white” is one of my favorite lines out of the whole movie.

    I love all of the different topics that you touched on. I didn’t even notice the yellow rose. Ok now I really need to get it back from my SIL and do a re-watch.

  6. Carolyn Jean Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 7:37 pm #

    Hey! You won the battle of the remote control. My man has just gone out of town and I just ordered this from Netflix, so I only skimmed your review…but I can tell you liked it. Yay. I’ll be back!

  7. Taja Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 9:46 pm #

    LeeAnn – thank you. It’s a great line and really grabs you. I’m not good at quoting from memory but I have no trouble with that one. :) And things like the yellow rose are an added benefit of watching “North and South” more than one time, IMO. I didn’t catch all of the things Kristie(J) mentions in her comment about it here the first time I saw it.

    Carolyn Jean – yeah, I really liked it. ;) I wish I could watch it again right now (it’s reading and writing the comments that does it) but it’s football time again here so no. But Sunday are the finals and then the remote control will be mine again! ;)
    I remember watching “North and South” for the first time – I was completely blown away. So if it works only half as good for you, you’re still on the safe side, I think. Have fun watching!

  8. sydney Saturday, June 28, 2008 at 9:21 pm #

    Hi Taja, danke for the welcome note. It’s interesting how varied Judith Ivory’s fan are in their favourite book of hers, I remember reading a fan thread on a message board, and nearly every book of hers was named as someone’s favourite. Black Silk has been my least favourite so far, but that could change.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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