"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: North & South

Here's what happens when you search for "North & South" on Tumblr: Lots of pictures of Richard Armitage's face. This is understandable, since he plays John Thornton, a handsome, brooding type and variant on the Darcy trope. However, it's a pity there's not more balance between his face and his co-star's, Daniela Denby-Ashe, who plays the wonderfully opinionated and passionate heroine, Margaret Hale. Part of what makes this miniseries so great is their two faces - both unusual and enormously expressive, even when they're just staring intensely out of windows (which they do for inordinate amounts of time).

I'm certainly a sucker for romantic costume drama. There's just something so refreshing about a movie where the hero has only to loosen his cravat (I'm using this term very carelessly, but if someone knows what to call the amazing wrap-around tie Thornton wears, please let me know) or the heroine let her shawl slip from her shoulders to ratchet up the sexual tension from high to sizzling.
I know, the use the word sizzling about a movie that's set in northern England is pretty odd, but these two actors and characters are truly perfectly matched in their verbal sparring and their ability to make the absolute most of a close-up. And the beautifully done setting and costumes (minimalist by comparison to some more lavish dramas, but still very effective) just makes it even better.

The story concerns the changes Margaret undergoes when she is uprooted from her idyllic life as the daughter of a parson in rural southern England and must move to the cold and strange world of a northern industrial town. But she's certainly not a passive player in this story. She has strong opinions, but more importantly, she also wants to inform herself and refine those opinions when faced with the debacle of industry and labor politics in her new home. She is possessed of a generous spirit, but she's also very stubborn. She seemed to me a wonderful embodiment of the complicated person that one becomes when one's natural inclinations clash with what society expects - in her case, she is caught between being a good daughter and a good christian and pursuing her own betterment and education. The great thing is that none of this is presented too baldly. She doesn't yearn to become a working woman or go to school, she doesn't rebel against her parents, or anything like that. But she strains against the boundaries of life in ways that feel very real. She talks out of turn at dinner parties and refuses to shake people's hands when she feels it isn't the right thing to do. But later she listens to what people thought of her behavior and adjusts herself - though only partially - to what they expect. She certainly makes me want to read more of Gaskell's work and see in more detail how she crafted her heroine.

The other aspect of the movie that its fans on Tumblr fail to note is the its political dimension. Margaret's journey is not just about finding love or becoming more tolerant of the northerners and they of her. She also discovers and must come to terms with the complicated realities of industrial labor. Thornton runs a cotton mill, and several other key characters work there, so much of the story revolves around the intractable battle between "masters" (as they call the mill owners) and workers, especially those trying to start up a union.

In this respect, the movie reminded me very much of Henry Green's novella "Living," or rather a combination of that book and "Pride and Prejudice." Of course it was originally a book, too, written by Elizabeth Gaskell, whose work I've never read but am now curious to. I found the treatment of the politics quite good because it never fully worked things out. Margaret is truly torn between trying to understand the worker's plight and the master's difficulties, and through her we get to see both sides in a relation that is never black and white.

All in all, this series is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys period pieces, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry Green, good dialogue, and attractive faces gazing broodingly out of windows.

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