"Elizabeth Gaskell's passionate tale of love across the social divide"
I've always been quite wary of the various BBC adaptations of Victorian novels. For every PRIDE & PREJUDICE there's a JANE EYRE. But I'm delighted because 2004's NORTH AND SOUTH, which we recently bought on DVD, (Sue edited to say: after reading about the adaptation on PHS) is one of their most engaging adaptations yet, and it successfully ticks all the boxes in telling a decent romantic story.
One confession - I haven't read Elizabeth Gaskell's story, so I can't comment on the liberties this adaptation takes with the book. Sue has, and she mentioned that the story of the book is better, and more complex, but that's to be expected really because of time constraints. I know some crucial scenes are different - our introduction to Mr. Thornton on the screen is as he beats up a worker, something that I know never happened in the novel - but I also know that key points in the book are retained (such as the stone-throwing incident).
Taken on its own, NORTH AND SOUTH is a decent period series that never outstays its four-hour running time. What is most vivid about the adaptation is its sense of time and place. Set in a grimy northern mill town, you really get a feel for what life was like during the period. There are no cheats, no tricks, no pandering to squeamish viewers - we see life in all its cold cruelness, and as the saying goes, it certainly was "grim up north".
So, the big picture of the story - the striking miners and terrible poverty - is portrayed admirably. But what of the central romance? It is a romantic story, after all. The good news is that the romance is as engaging as the backdrop. Daniela Denby-Ashe, best known for EASTENDERS and MY FAMILY, really gets to show off her acting muscles as she gets her teeth into the role of Margaret Hale and makes it her own. Denby-Ashe is fantastic, and ably supported by Richard Armitage - nowadays known for his role as Guy of Gisborne in the recent ROBIN HOOD BBC series - playing the hero, John Thornton. Armitage is dashing but also very human, and he's up there with Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy in the ranking of charismatic heroes. The supporting cast members are also all very good in their different roles.
What really makes this good is that there is no cliched flashiness, no camera tricks. Director Brian Percival is content to let the story tell itself without getting in the way. I'm glad - because the concentration on the storytelling is what makes this a winner. Not PRIDE & PREJUDICE, perhaps, but NORTH AND SOUTH certainly comes very close.