No, not the Hollywood film, but the BBC adaptation of Mrs Gaskell's socially conscientious, almost-penny-dreadful, almost-epic novel of the same name set against the Dark Satanic Mills of 19th century "Milton" (Manchester) in "Darkshire" (Lancashire) which we caught up with over the last few days. How on earth we missed this one when it was first released in 2004 I'll never know, but better late than never!
Firstly, this is without a doubt one of the best period dramatizations I've ever seen. Period. It has the usual beautiful and historically-accurate production values one has come to expect from the BBC's lavish television adaptations of classic works, but seems to go even one step further with a sumptuous score that out-Finzi's the man himself, and cinematography that takes your breath away. Eat your heart out, Hollywood.
Enough of Mrs Gaskell's own dialogue is left intact that you are inexorably drawn into her world where change and tradition were still coexisting rather uncomfortably, and the class struggle and tension between a rural past and an industrial future are clearly defined. Even the artistic licence taken with the final scene is bearable - it's true to the spirit of the book if not to the letter and is performed with such tenderness and elegance that, despite knowing that no respectable unmarried Victorian lady would have let herself be passionately kissed in broad daylight in public, you can even forgive them having made the change from drawing room to railway platform. It's all wrong but all right.
The performances are quite simply magnificent. There's no denying that Richard Armitage is easy on the eyes, but his brooding Mr Thornton goes beyond good looks and screen charisma: even as he glares from beneath what were memorably described by my husband as his "starched eyebrows" (!), subtleties in the performance let us see from the beginning that this is a good and honest man at heart, a man whose world is turned upside down not only by the turmoil of a workers' strike, but by the outspoken, headstrong, not-really-a-snob Margaret Hale who shows him that maybe there is more to life than trouble at't'mill. Daniela Denby-Ashe's luminous Margaret perfectly captures the essence of Gaskell's heroine, and she draws us into her world of genteel poverty even as she tries to see outside her sheltered upbringing, learning along the way that honourable intentions may not always manifest quite as expected. Not to be forgotten are Sinead Cusack as the stern, black-clad matriarch at the head of the Thornton household, Jo Joyner as the truly-awful, capricious and silly Fanny, and Brendan Coyle as Higgins, the union activist who genuinely cares about people regardless of their station in life.
Above and beyond simply enjoying the series, the craft behind this particular production struck me. As an actress, it was fun to see the technical skill that these wonderful performers brought to their roles, particularly when re-watching certain scenes after I knew "what happened next". Initially, I just enjoyed watching the story unfold, but on second-viewing it was an education to see the details that had been so carefullly painted into the performances, subtleties of body language, tiny moves and interactions, meaningful looks filled with ambiguities that, once the plot was known, were clear-as-day expressions of the characters' thoughts. Thornton's attempts not to look at Margaret, but staying at her door just a second or two too long for comfort (masterful timing throughout, in fact - kudos to the director as well!). Margaret's harsh words to a servant belied by a comforting touch to her arm. Mrs Thornton's gentle maternal empathy as she covers her son, fallen asleep over the accounts, with her shawl. Higgins' subtle mixture of deference and resentment as he refuses Margaret's coin after he has helped her away from a gang of rough youths. Tiny little touches all of which add up to characters who feel real, and which offer us little moments of genuine emotional connection. Unlike Dickens's casts of eccentrics and all-good-or-all-bad "Everymen", these people seemed to be real flesh and blood.
It also seemed that the cinematography and lighting played a huge role in the characters' developments on this one - now that I'm thinking about light as a photographer, I find myself noticing it all the time in films and videos (not sure if this is a blessing or a curse!) In addition to the obvious (and very beautiful!) use of light and shade to distinguish between Margaret's glorified memories of her idyllic childhood home and the dark gloom of Milton, the lighting was used to help visually mark the emotional journey of the characters, it seemed. Of particular note was how dramatically the lighting changed Mr Thornton from seeming-brute (underlit and brooding as light from overhead cast shadows into the eyes) to "misunderstood hero" (lots of side and Rembrandt lighting, with only one side of his face clearly available for us to "read") to "honest man in love" when suddenly his face was bathed in softer, more even light that finally allowed us to see his eyes (and, finally, a smile!).
Well-performed drama such as this is always a treat - in its own right, of course, but I find it also reminds me to look to fill my own performances with this kind of skill and detail. As a singer we don't have the luxury of self-pacing (the musical rhythm does it for us) and in a 2000 seat theater the subtleties a filmed actor can explore wouldn't play to the house, but that is no reason not to remember and use details while creating a character - the scale may be different, but the principles are the same and it can be the difference between a good performance and a great one.
North and South was, without a doubt, a great one.