Miniseries Review: 'North & South' (2004)

One of the most moving miniseries ever made, this divine adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel teaches valuable lessons that drive to the very heart of humanity. When Margaret Hale (Daniela Denbe-Ashe) moves from the English countryside to the city with her parents, the adjustment sends her reeling, as does meeting the man that embodies her new home, mill owner John Thornton (Richard Armitage).

When they meet, it is under the worst possible circumstances as Thornton angrily reprimands one of his workers. That initial encounter colors everything Margaret thinks about him afterward. So how does one get past a bad first impression and is everything we think we know following that initial glimpse, accurate? “North & South” delves into this topic with unparalleled results.

That is because “North & South” is a tale so delicate, finessed, and beautiful that it simply stuns, as Martin Phipps' stirring score perfectly accents every emotion that is poured into the series by its phenomenal cast.

Four episodes fly by thanks to its riveting story and the rich performances of its ensemble. It merits mention that few series have managed to end with yours truly in tears and “North & South” is one of them, thanks to its seamless tale of life and love. The life lessons that lead to love begin with a snap judgment, and not the love-at-first-sight kind.

“North & South” questions the generalizations people make regarding those they are quick to judge, pointing to humanity’s need to keep its perceptions of opposing sides in a narrowly negative view.

In contrast, this story is narratively balanced, as it equally empathizes with both sides of its central debate regarding industrialization, acknowledging there are good and bad people involved on both teams. Supporting this balance is casting that clearly aims to give each character their finest representation.

This is showcased in the storyline of Nicolas Higgins (Brendan Coyle), a hard-working man and devoted father. Coyle’s layered performance brings Higgins to life in a remarkable way that gives as strong a voice to his cause, as Armitage does to Thornton’s.

When it comes to a person's native justification for their point of view, villains are easy to create, whereas heroes are harder to find. Being willing to seek the humanity of either plaintiff is the more difficult undertaking and as “North & South” demonstrates, it is one well-worth taking.

Margaret Hale and John Thornton each work towards this latter goal. They debate their dueling philosophies, while Margaret struggles to realize her misconceptions are blinding her to the accuracy of Thornton’s.

This is because for all of the outward intensity that seems to hint to the contrary, Thornton’s mind is actually one of the most open in the series and herein lies the magic of "North & South."

Both leads are written as fully dimensional people. As the series progresses these various dimensions grow more transparent.

Margaret's heartwarming relationship with her parents and the Higgins family cement her as a savvy woman, daughter, and quiet activist. And Thornton is identically fleshed out as a self-made man, son, brother, and business owner.

Both characters exist outside of the realm of their respective romantic entanglements. There are scenes that tug at every aspect of the human experience. Ones that transcend a romantic narrative's usual purview. Margaret and Thornton are active members of their family, and both contribute to them in different, and equally valuable ways.

Thornton’s poignant relationship with his mother provides an insightful and crucial piece of his personality puzzle. The intimidating Mrs. Thornton is meticulously played by Sinead Cusack, who brings a frosty resolve and internalized warmth to the role.

Like her son, Mrs. Thornton is easy to misjudge, and watching as her true-self emerges throughout the series is brilliantly handled, as is everything in director Brian Percival’s thoughtful adaptation. In a rare accomplishment, casting director Jill Trevellick has impeccably cast each role.

Daniela Denby-Ashe is beyond authentic as the stubborn, generous, and principled, Margaret Hale. While Richard Armitage is mesmeric as the stormy Thornton, a captivating and dynamic performance, few have truly ever rendered. Armitage’s is one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that stay with you long after the credits roll due to its compelling intricacies.

Despite their differences, Margaret and Thornton both earn the audience's respect, making you yearn to see them unite all the more, and on the edge of your seat as to whether it will actually happen.

So it comes as no surprise that when Phipps' sublime "Northbound Train" begins to stir, so does the race to dry one's eyes. The word “masterpiece” is not used on this site often. In the case of “North & South” no other term applies.

Rating: 10/10

"North and South" is currently streaming on Netflix.

[Featured Image by the BBC]