North & South is another one of these gorgeous English productions that many people are unaware of. This is not to be confused with the Kirstie Alley TV miniseries which came out in the 1980s and dealt with the American Civil War. I'm talking about the screen adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel of the same name. For those who don't know Elizabeth Gaskell, she writes of an early industrial time in England that falls in between the Regency that Jane Austen fans know well and the Victorian age of authors such as Dickens and the Brontes. Her novels are notable for depicting this instrumental time in the infancy of industrialization as the backdrop to plots of intricate character and romance. Her style is earthier than Austen but not so gritty or grisly as Dickens. Yes, there's a fairly high death count in her books, but its usually from disease and old age and not so much from murder. :)
The division between the north and south is found in the eyes of our heroine Margaret Hale, who leaves a pastoral country society of southern English gentility when her father, a vicar, has a crisis of faith that propels him to leave his church. He moves his family to the sooty dank northern mill town of Milton where Margaret flounders to find a place for herself amid an entirely different lifestyle than the one she knew. Her story, especially her relationship with John Thornton, who runs a cotton mill, is the driving plot of the book, but the book and the 2004 television adaption are enriched by many other fascinating relationships that are almost as striking as hers with Thornton, such as Thornton's relationship with his mother, Margaret's relationship with the working class Higgins family, and, my favorite, Higgins' and Thornton's relationship.
Thornton is a mill owner, Nicholas Higgins a union leader. They start out as enemies on either side of a strike - their relationship somewhere between hatred and misunderstanding. After the strike fails and events conspire to make Higgins really need a job, the men meet in this scene and work out a tentative agreement for Higgins to work in Thornton's mill.
Thornton has probably never walked down this street before and it inspires both disgust and compassion. Notice the look on Higgins' face as he ushers Thornton into his tiny home; how his glance sweeps the street wondering what the neighbors might think. They are mistrustful of each other and each is trying to assert who he is. ("Work is work. I'll come. And what's more I'll thank you for it and that's a good deal from me.") They want to work together for different reasons but both rooted in the idea that Margaret can see what is best in them and they want to rise to it. They both care deeply about Margaret -- but in different ways.
A grudging respect begins to develop between the two strong men as Thornton realizes that Higgins is exactly the kind of man he admires; he works hard, supports his family and even another man's family. He is honest and fair as well as intelligent.
Meanwhile Higgins also realizes that Thornton has concerns that run deeper than simply keeping the worker down and turning a profit and the two begin to forge a relationship that is really touching.
In my favorite scene (which I can't find a short clip of), Thornton finds Higgins working late and starts to get angry with him, thinking he's up to something and wants overtime. But Higgins says he just wanted to finish the day's work, because if Thornton goes under Higgins wont have a job. By chatting, they together realize the need for workers and their families to have fit meals. When Thornton voices an opinion that workers should eat well, Higgins is amused. "Careful. Someone will report you to the masters union for that kind of talk."
But Thornton's dander is up. "If men eat well they work well. And that will please masters too unless they're idiots. Which some of 'em are."
The two begin to discuss how a meal program at the mill might work and Higgins starts spewing out ideas. Thornton is impressed.
"You did bring your brains with you to work today didn't you?"
"Well I try to keep them hidden but I can't do without them altogether."
They both have a tongue in check impishness with each other. They understand one another and realize that their goals are actually quite well aligned.
By the end of the film Higgins calls Thornton by his name, not "master" and also, so perceptively and slyly finds a way to reveal the truth about a key piece of information that is keeping Margaret and Thornton apart.
Some of this production does not follow the book. But North & South is a perfect illustration of how an excellent screen adaptation can depart from a book in plot point but follow it in spirit and enhance its story for the screen. Every single choice the screen writer and director make that depart from the book add to the story. That is a remarkable thing for an adaptation to accomplish.
Higgins and Thornton of North & South -- One of the Best Male Relationships Ever. LostinBritishTV