Friday, August 2, 2019

The Best Period Drama

North and South (2004). From Culture Vultures:
The BBC adaptation of North and South is fifteen years old this year, and it remains the best nineteenth century era period drama you’ve probably never seen. It’s better than any Dickens adaptation (apart from The Muppet Christmas Carol, but we won’t go there). It’s better than any version of any Victor Hugo novel. It’s better than any Bronte based movie or TV show (and generally you’d have to pry Jane Eyre from my cold dead hands). What I am saying is, North and South is the best Victorianish era costume drama I’ve ever seen, and if you haven’t seen it, I can only implore you to sit down with it as soon as you can. 
Based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South follows the story of Margaret Hale, a southern vicar’s daughter who is forced to relocate to the north of England when her father is disgraced. There she learns a few things about poverty and the state of industrial England, makes some unlikely friends, and meets John Thornton, a gruff factory owner who has problems of his own. The two clash at first, but it won’t take a genius to work out what happens between them in the end. 
So far, so costume drama, I hear you cry. And described like that then sure, North and South is very much like any other. But it’s more than that. So much more. There are three things that make North and South stand out from all the others I’ve seen: the story, the themes, and the casting. Two of these strengths come from the novel itself, so I’ll start with those. Gaskell created something quite special with this, especially by Victorian standards. 
Firstly, the story. One of the first things to strike you with North and South is that it’s very realistic. What I mean by this is that there’s none of those silly one in a million coincidences or chance meetings that make a Dickens plot work. There’s no ‘eyes meeting across a crowded room and falling in love at first sight’ nonsense. There is a bit of melodrama – Margaret loses both her parents in quick succession, and her benefactor also conveniently dies, leaving her quite a bit of money – but none of those things really do much to advance the plot, or change the ending too much. 
In general, the story feels very contemporary in its telling. Margaret is not flawed as such, but she has much to learn about lives other than her own, which she does admirably. She learns that her prejudices about the north are mostly unfounded. Her friendship with Nicholas, a factory worker, and his dying daughter Bessy, is just as important to her character development as the romance bit. Factory owner John is also not really flawed in the same way that a Bronte hero is. He’s tired, and he works hard, and he has an inkling that he needs to make things better for his workers, but he doesn’t know how. In a wonderfully symmetrical bit of storytelling, his own relationship with Nicholas is just as integral to how he changes as it is for Margaret. (Read more.)

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