Screenwriter Sandy Welch’s version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novel has to be one of the best BBC classic adaptations. It’s a series which was an immediate hit on first screening - partly because of Richard Armitage’s brooding portrayal of Thornton, but also I think because of the story itself, since I remember a previous BBC adaptation in 1975 being very popular, though sadly I never had the opportunity to see it at the time. I’d love the chance to compare the 2004 mini-series with the earlier version, which starred Patrick Stewart and Rosalie Shanks.
The series has stunning cinematography by Peter Greenhalgh and set design by Simon Elliot, together with a haunting musical score by Martin Phipps. The director, Brian Percival, is also directing some episodes of the eagerly-awaited BBC costume series Downton Abbey. I’m going to discuss the whole plot in this review, so if you haven’t seen it I’d definitely advise doing so before you read on – and, if you are watching it for the first time, what a treat you have in store!
This four-part series could almost be called ‘Dark and Light’, because so many of the northern scenes are full of darkness and shadows, while the southern ones are bathed in light and colour. However, there is also a lot of cold white light in the northern scenes, with many scenes where either snow or fluff from the cotton mills whirls through the air. I have just reread the novel, which is one reason I’ve taken a long time to write this rather rambling review. The mini-series stays much closer to the book than with the BBC’s Cranford, but, in this film too, some of the most dramatic and passionate scenes are those which have been added, or drawn out from brief hints in the novel.
The opening scene sees heroine Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) sitting on a train – something which will also recur at the end of the series. Then the first episode traces why she is being uprooted from her home, Helstone, and taken by train to industrial Milton, in the north, based on Manchester. I think Denby-Ashe is very good as Margaret - she has a quality of holding everything in and not expressing very much emotion, but always with the knowledge that the hidden depths are there, which seems just right for the character. I like the scenes of Margaret in the countryside, including one where she lies down in the grass under a tree, showing how she feels herself in tune with the landscape around her. There are also London scenes near the start, as Margaret attends her cousin Edith’s wedding and inadvertently gives hope to stuffy suitor Henry Lennox (John Light) – whose proposal she turns down by telling him not to say any more, just as later she will try to silence the hero, John Thornton in his proposal scene.
In the opening scenes, Margaret has to stay strong – something she will have to do all the way through – as her father, Richard, the village parson, has a crisis of faith which leads to him leaving the Church of England. Tim Pigott-Smith is wonderfully tentative as Mr Hale, almost unrecognisable from his most famous performance in The Jewel in the Crown, while I also like Lesley Manville as his wife, the plaintive Maria, clinging to the memories of her socially grander younger days – something which is played up more in the novel. The other member of the household is Pauline Quirke as Maria’s fiercely devoted maid, Dixon.
When the Hales arrive in Milton, the visual contrast with the south is immediate, with all the dark and shadowy streets and the grey stone buildings. One important change from the novel is the first meeting between Margaret and John Thornton (Richard Armitage). In the book, there is nothing particularly dramatic about this meeting, but the class and north/south divide between them is immediately apparent, as he finds her haughty – because she is so reserved – while she is immediately aware of his trade background and describes him as “not quite a gentleman”. She also becomes uneasy about his attitude to his workers and the way he describes them as “hands”.
In the mini-series, these conflicting views are turned into vivid melodrama, with the first meeting coming as Margaret actually goes into the mill to make an inquiry – so she first sees Thornton at work, in his own realm. Here she is faced by the sight of him violently attacking a worker, whom he has caught smoking in the mill, creating a fire risk. When I first saw this scene, I reacted as Margaret does, with horror, and I remember finding it hard to warm to Thornton in the rest of the series, despite Richard Armitage’s sensitive portrayal of the character, because of the memory of that violence constantly hanging about him. I still feel uneasy about the scene, though I was interested to see that one of the comments at the imdb points out that this is probably the intended reaction – that in a way viewers undergo the same journey as Margaret, at first being put off Thornton but then gradually coming to forgive and understand him. He does later explain his anger, saying that the previous year he had seen many people die in a mill fire - a danger which was all too real.
I was quite surprised to realise that this whole episode of the smoking and fight isn’t in the novel, as, despite my unease about it, it is so powerful and does such a lot to establish characters. It gives Thornton’s character an undercurrent of violence which he must struggle to subdue, and shows Margaret’s determination to speak out for what she believes is right – something which is a key quality of the character in the novel. At first I thought the man he casts out in this scene was tragic waif John Boucher (William Houston), but I was wrong there, as Ailatan kindly pointed out in her comment – it is another character, Stevens. However, later in the film the struggling mill worker Boucher takes on the role of scapegoat and outcast – all through the mini-series, there are scenes of him wandering alone through the streets and later near the river, as he descends further into despair and towards his final tragic fate, when he drowns himself.
After the initial glimpse of violence in Thornton’s character, this is tempered by hints of tenderness, through scenes of him and his mother. Sinead Cusack gives a powerful performance as Mrs Thornton and I liked all the scenes of mother and son, the way they leave a lot unsaid, but put across their concern for one another by their expression. When I read the book now I always see Cusack as the character in my mind’s eye - she just seems exactly right. I especially like the scene in episode three where Thornton returns after his failed proposal – there have been scenes of him wandering through the streets as Boucher does – and says “No one loves me – no one cares for me but you, mother”, a line taken word for word from the novel.
Just as our perception of Thornton’s character changes, any view of Margaret as haughty and stand-offish is changed by the development of her friendship with dying mill girl Bessy Higgins and her father, fiery strike leader Nicholas. These characters are well played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who was so good as Esther in the BBC Bleak House, and Brendan Coyle, who stars as Robert Timmins in Lark Rise to Candleford. Bessy in the series is very different from the character in the book, who constantly talks about heaven and quotes from the book of Revelation, in a weird and unearthly way which reminds me at times of Jenny Wren in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. In the film, instead of being a pitiful creature who constantly talks about angels, she is a lively girl who could have been a real friend to Margaret – I think this is an example of the series losing a strongly Victorian element and tailoring the emotional content more to modern audiences.
Through Margaret’s friendship with the Higgins family, the series shows the cotton strike from both viewpoints, that of master and workers. As in the book, the bringing in of the Irish workers to break the strike is played down because we never actually see the plight of these incomers, who are left on the fringe of the narrative - but the anger and desperation of the half-starved mob we do see is powerfully created. One of the great scenes in both book and film comes when Margaret drives Thornton out to address the rioting workers, and then jumps into his arms to save him from a stone thrown by Boucher. This is the second time these three characters have been thrown together in a scene of violence.
This dramatic incident leads on to Thornton’s proposal to Margaret, which is reminiscent of Darcy’s first proposal in Pride and Prejudice - there are many similarities between the two novels – in the way that the two characters almost seem to be speaking different languages. It’s interesting to look at the deleted longer version of this scene, where Margaret says more about feeling that Thornton wants to buy her as his possession. I think the scene included in the final cut, where she suggests this more briefly, is more effective, a case of less being more. Richard Armitage is very good at playing a character tormented by unrequited love – something he kept up for two seasons of the BBC’s Robin Hood, a show I really want to write about some time – and this anguished conversation is probably his best scene in the whole mini-series. Something added to the novel’s account here is Thornton’s comments about the colour of fruit at the start and end of the scene. This seems to be inspired by all the mentions in the book of him taking fruit to Mrs Hale, and I think shows that he shares Margaret’s sensitivity to nature, despite his industrial surroundings.
The portrayal of Thornton’s character deepens as his business falls apart in the aftermath of the strike, something which is rather rushed through in the novel, where Gaskell had to pack a lot into the later chapters because of serial publication. Here it is shown at a bit more length, bringing out his vulnerability (scenes like the one where he falls asleep with his head on the desk), and with his friendship with Nicholas mirroring Margaret’s. All through the series, scenes of conflict between him and the other masters, over measures such as bringing in a new invention to protect workers’ lungs, show he is closer to Margaret’s idealism than she realises.
While he is suffering torments in both his personal and professional life, Margaret is also going through her own troubles, with the deaths of her parents (this is a book where the deaths pile up fast) and the stolen visit by her brother, Frederick (Rupert Evans, who played Frank Churchill in Welch’s adaptation of Emma). The confrontation between Margaret, Frederick and Thornton at the station is another powerful set-piece.
The couple’s final romantic meeting comes at a station again, as they are both travelling in trains in opposite directions - an incident which isn’t in the book but suggested by him visiting Helstone to see the place where she grew up and pick one of the flowers, something she also did on a visit there. I love this ending and the way it picks up on the opening scene with Margaret on the train, bringing everything full circle.
The four pictures featuring Richard Armitage I’ve used in this posting are all gratefully taken from the Richard Armitage Central Gallery.
Coming up next – Wives and Daughters!