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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

NORTH AND SOUTH -- DVD review by porfle

Looking back now on the premiere of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", it's funny now how little some of us realized what a coup Gene Roddenberry had scored in getting British thespian Patrick Stewart to star as Captain Jean Luc Picard. Back then, I thought this short, bald guy whom I didn't recall ever seeing before was about as much captain material as my Aunt Fanny, but time certainly proved me wrong about that.

Interesting, then, to rediscover Patrick Stewart's earlier TV and film accomplishments back when he was a sturdy young up-and-coming actor with a full head of (fake) hair. The four-part "BBC2 Serial" presentation NORTH AND SOUTH (1975), now available in a 2-disc DVD set from Acorn Media, catches him with his robust theatricality in full bloom in a part he can really sink his incisors into.

The actual star of this adaptation of the Elizabeth Gaskel novel is Rosalie Shanks (Aunt Mimi of "John Lennon: A Journey in the Life") as Margaret Hale, a young Victorian-era woman who has been living the high society life in London with her aunt and cousins for ten years but now yearns to return to her pastoral home in Southern England. As fate would have it, though, her clergyman father (Robin Bailey) has just broken ties with the church and is moving the family to a Northern factory town filled with noise and soot, which horrifies not only Margaret but her reserved, delicate mother ( Kathleen Byron).

Mr. Hale begins to earn extra money as a tutor, and one of his students is a young cotton mill owner named John Thornton (Stewart). When labor vs. management issues begin to heat up and a strike looms, bleeding heart Margaret sides with the poor workers while Thornton brings in Irish laborers, which leads to a confrontation in which Margaret is injured while shielding Thornton from harm.

Her impulsive act is seen as a brazen display of public affection that will lead to her shame unless she marries Thornton. The idea appeals to him since he happens to be in love with her, but she can't stand him--at least, she claims she can't (although we know better, now don't we?)

What promises to be a complex story actually turns out to be quite simple and, while engrossing enough, seems a bit padded over four 50-minute episodes. The deliberate and non-sensationalistic storytelling style is at its most intriguing when dealing with Thornton's labor problems and the tribulations of some of his downtrodden workers, such as the unfortunate Higgins (Norman Jones) whose daughter Bessy is dying from breathing in cotton fibers in what is known as the factory's dreaded "carding room." Rosalie Crutchley is a strong presence as Thornton's iron-willed mother, who considers her son too good for Margaret, and their scenes together are interesting.

The romantic stuff, however, wears thin after awhile and is resolved in a seemingly cursory manner as the story itself offers few surprises--even the fact that several key characters die off one by one eventually loses its shock value. After awhile it even begins to seem as though new players are being introduced simply to give the story someone else to knock off so that poor put-upon Margaret can be sad again.

As Margaret, Rosalie Shanks is theatrical and affected, but earnest, and somewhat reminiscent of a young Julie Andrews although at times her oddly over-expressive face makes her resemble a Nick Park character. Margaret gains some depth as the determinedly charitable young woman takes on an increased empathy for those beneath her station, yet we never really care all that much about her. Stewart, on the other hand, brings such a restrained vigor to his role that the film lights up when he's on the screen. In relation to his dreary surroundings and the dour people he must constantly deal with, his character is likable and appealing.

The 2-disc DVD from Acorn Media is in full screen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles. No extras. Image quality is good despite the age of the production.

Veering at times toward sheer melodrama, there's a theatricality to NORTH AND SOUTH that sometimes makes it seem as though it's being recited rather than acted. On the whole, however, it's a pleasant enough viewing experience that fans of old-style BBC Victorian drama will want to make it a point to see. And Patrick Stewart with hair--whether it's actually his or not--is always a novelty.

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