6/4/07

"North & South" (2004)

Daniela Denby-Ashe (Margaret), Richard Armitage (Thornton), Sinéad Cusack (Mrs. Thornton), Brendan Coyle (Higgins)

Director: Brian Percival

Plot: A four-part adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's love story of Margaret Hale, a middle class southerner who is forced to move to the northern town of Milton, where she meets the sexiest, most tortured, angsty, noble, incredible hero of all time.

Ein herzliches Willkommen an die wunderbaren, verrückten deutschen Fans! Als ich das letzte Mal über Richard Armitage geschrieben habe, hatte ich noch nicht "North and South" gesehen. Wie dumm von mir! Ich hatte ja keine Ahnung! Als Guy of Gisborne ist er wirklich interessant, aber als John Thornton ist er ein wahrer Gott! Und ich bin hin und weg.

(Achtung: Ich spreche Deutsch nicht. Ich habe einen großzügigen deutschen Freund, der die Übersetzung vollendet hat.)

I adored this movie, and not just the incredible portrayal of John Thornton by a non-Secretary of State Richard Armitage. The representation of multiple class strata in mid-19th century England extends beyond the standard poor vs. rich. The factory workers look up to the masters, the masters bow before landlords and bankers, and obviously the richest of those would look up to the nobility and peerage. In the middle, literally, is the character of Margaret Hale, the daughter of a former vicar and cousin to an army captain. Her first suitor is a lawyer. She lives among people of culture and learning, but they are still people who have to earn a living.

As a mill master, Thornton obviously holds sway and power within his community of tradesmen in the northern town of Milton, and he terrifies his employees. But they respect him; he is an honest man who does not capitulate to demands -- but neither does he trick or undercut his workers, risking their payroll in speculative schemes. And despite all of this success, he is unworthy of Margaret, which is painfully displayed in the proposal scene. He is a self-made man, and as an American in the 21st century, NOT admiring such an individual is the hardest leap to make with this production. What's not to adore about a humble, honest working man who has built a successful business?

But when Thornton travels to London for an exhibition, he becomes the subject of quiet ridicule. The contrast between the respect he garners in the north is profound, adding layers of subtlety to the usual poor vs. rich class scheme. This is about an old way of life vs. a new way.

Thornton's character is defined against three other individuals: his mother, his bestest girl Margaret, and a factory worker named Higgins, played fabulously by Brendan Coyle. They begin as adversaries across the divide of a strike but find common allegiance with regard to a particular set of children and the workers' conditions. Thornton began the story believing that healthier workers = better workers, therefore seeing the profit in investments such as sorting room fans and onsite doctors. Through Higgins, he begins to see the humanity, not just the profit, in such concessions.

With his mother, Thornton shows vulnerability. He smiles. He laughs and shares his doubts. And she is the battle ax to end all battle axes. Played to jaw-clenched perfection by Jeremy Irons' wife, Sinéad Cusack (of the Irish Cusacks, as opposed to the American clan), Hannah Thornton is her son's biggest advocate -- to a fault. Everything Milton is everything wonderful in the world. She is unwilling to accept that others may look down on them as tradespeople, and she sees little value in the culture and education that Margaret's father tries to share with Thornton. Her gradual, nearly imperceptable softening toward Maragret is another sign of accord between the classes.

And then there's Margaret herself. Her Mary Sue is second only to the great Elizabeth Bennet. Too doe-eyed to be taken seriously, she displays a pure sort of idealism. Compared to Higgins' defeatism, she is a child. Compared to Thornton's practicality, she is a dreamer. And compared to Esther Summerson of Dickens' "Bleak House," my favorite heroine of BBC-Adaptations Land, she's too insipid. But the final scene when she kisses Thornton's hand gets me every time.

As an aside, Anna Maxwell Martin, who played Esther Summerson, plays Maragaret's consumptive friend Bessie. I love seeing her in anything.

I save my final thoughts for Armitage as Thornton. He is amazing. Every look is grim torture, and he scowls beautifully, artfully even. He should patent moves such as the Fist of Grief (when he learns Margaret is leaving Milton), the Walk of Destiny (when he strides through the mill in a snow cloud of cotton), and the Squint of Doom (when he's trying to see if Margaret looks back at him from the carriage). All three of those scenes gave me shivers, and I had to rewind them a few dozen times.

The director made excellent use of his angular features, often showing him in profile and silhouetted to emphasize his sharp humor. When he and Margaret come together at the station for the happy ending, he is smiling, his shirt collar is open, and the profiled pose is long gone. The effect is quite startling -- a man coming to accept the possibility of life filled with joy, not simply resolve and toil.

And I say again, he would kick Darcy's lazy ass. I'd SO pay to see that.

3 comments:

jmc said...

He is a self-made man, and as an American in the 21st century, NOT admiring such an individual is the hardest leap to make with this production. What's not to adore about a humble, honest working man who has built a successful business?

Exactly! As I watched, I had such a hard time remembering why he wasn't a "proper" hero-suitor for Margaret.

And I say again, he would kick Darcy's lazy ass. I'd SO pay to see that

I concur :)

Kris Eton said...

Ahhh!!!! I wrote this HUGE long comment, and then Blogger lost it! Bah!

I also just discovered this little BBC gem of a mini-series. To put it bluntly, Thornton is one hot, tortured hero.

My favorite scenes:

1) When Thornton goes off to propose to Margaret. He's so full of hope that she will surely accept him. And then she crushes him!!!!

2) When Thornton sees Margaret at the train station with her brother, and thinks she is meeting a man! Oh, so horrid!

3) At the very end, when he is smiling and loose and free and happy with his Margaret. Sigh...

Get this puppy from Netflix now!

Doug said...

You lost me at Wie dumm von mir :)

And what's all this Darcy hate? What's wrong with being wealthy and landed by virtue of proper breeding? /snark