As a follow up to the recent post about my family’s history with labor unions, I thought I would put forward a list of my favorite labor themed films. However, the more I thought about it, the more one movie in particular stood out from the rest, to the point where the list I was thinking of making would have come out terribly lopsided.
You will probably not find North & South on any list of “The Top Labor Union Films” (at least I didn’t), which is both bogus and easily explained. It is probably the onscreen offering that comes to my mind first when I think of labor unions, so deeply is the story entrenched in this particular plot line, yet it is probably not featured on any of these lists for the simple reason that it’s not technically a movie. Though it looks and quacks like a duck, it’s actually a 4 part BBC TV mini-series.
Based on the 1885 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, this 2004 adaptation is superbly written by Sandy Welch, who I discovered though this research is one of my favorite screenwriters, having also done Our Mutual Friend and what I believe is the best version of Jane Eyre ever made (the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens), for which she received an Emmy nomination (rightly so).
The subject matter of North & South seems to invoke equal parts of Jane Austen (in its Pride and Prejudice type relationship between its two main characters) and Charles Dickens (in its juxtaposition of a mannered society and an industrial slum). The protagonist, Margaret Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe), straddles the line between both worlds, being an educated young lady from the pastoral South of England who relocates with her parents to the industrial Northern town of Milton where she experiences an immediate culture shock. The cinematography highlights the differences between the two places and gives insight into how Margaret feels about them, the South shot in the dreamy golden haze of fond memory; the North a stark contrast in harsh, dirty blues and grays that appear cold and unwelcoming, which is how Margaret views her new home initially. In addition to her new surroundings, she is also repelled and confused by her father’s new acquaintance, the stern but handsome mill owner John Thornton (Richard Armitage) who she is almost instantly at odds with. When she first sees him he is giving hell to a worker caught smoking in the mill. Margaret watches as Thornton, surrounded by floating cotton, beats the man and throws him out. She, horrified at this violence, intervenes. It is later understood that Thornton’s reaction was so extreme because the smoker could have killed them all and burned down the mill with his actions. Still, Margaret initially views Thornton as something of a brute, but puts up with him in deference to her father who has befriended him.
She instead prefers the company of Nicholas Higgins (Brendan Coyle) and his daughter Bessy (Anna Maxwell Martin), members of the impoverished lower class who work in Thornton’s Marlborough Mills. Margaret admires the straightforward Higgins and the stoic Bessy, who is seriously ill from a lung disease developed from inhaling cotton fibers while working in another mill with worse working conditions as a child. Higgins is at odds with his employer and Margaret soon finds herself in the middle of a workplace war as Higgins encourages his fellow workers to unionize and strike against Thornton and the other mill owners for better wages and working conditions…with a mixed bag of results and consequences…
North & South takes a well rounded view of the relationship between employers and the workers, portraying the leaders of both parties (Thornton the employer and Higgins the worker) as intelligent, credible, and noticeably similar to one another in their inherent values and personalities, though on opposing sides and coming from different backgrounds. Though the selling point of the story is the will they or won’t they romance developing between Margaret Hale and John Thornton, the steady heartbeat and driving force of the story is very much the workplace struggle between Thornton and the workers. It is by seeing Thornton in action and finally coming to understand the care and honesty of his ways that Margaret finally comes to appreciate him. Unlike his fellow mill owners, Thornton is straightforward with his workers and is sensible enough to see that providing a healthy work environment may cost a bit more, but will pay off in the long run. Thornton, realizing that he is responsible for not only his own livelihood, but the livelihood of his workers, takes his business seriously. He doesn’t care if his workers meet to discuss unionizing so long as they show up to work in order to keep the mill functioning. It’s when that is threatened that Thornton and Higgins clash.
North & South also highlights the desperation on the part of the worker, the stress of having to provide for a family amidst unpleasant and sometimes dangerous working conditions, and the hopelessness of feeling that your situation may not change. The book, released in 1855, was noted as one of the first novels to take on the industrial conflict between management and workers. It did not gain much traction in England at the time of release, in part because Gaskell was a woman and not taken seriously as an authority on such matters and in part because the issue of trade unions was at the time contentious, not even recognized as a positive by Parliament until 1867 and not legalized until 1872. Today, with unions and women’s rights firmly in place, it’s much easier to see Gaskell as a woke female who was simply ahead of her time.
“I believe I’ve seen Hell,” Margaret narrates over a shot of Thornton in silhouette striding through his domain as the music swells, passing workers on looms while the cotton floats through the air like falling snow, “It’s white. It’s snow white.” The score by Martin Phipps is like nothing I’ve ever heard. It sticks in your gut, you remember it. It lightly dances over high notes, then plunges into deep ones. It rains down softly like tears on teacups. When emotions are high between Thornton and Margaret, the music grabs your heart and pulls it along on the back of the wind running over the hills. It’s one of the most gorgeous scores I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
The miniseries is the vehicle that introduced me to the actors Brendan Coyle (this was before he became a household name with Downton Abbey and part of the reason I was excited to watch it when it first came out) and the swoon worthy Richard Armitage, who is just the right amount of wry smile and stern brow (and also apparently broke the internet when this came out and was a major factor in making this a success…I mean, look at him!). Daniela Denby-Ashe is a proper mix of naivety and outspokenness as Margaret and the presence of BBC It-girl Anna Maxwell Martin (who starred in Bleak House a year later and the Bletchley Circle beyond that) and Sinead Cusack as Thornton’s dour mother do well to round out the cast.
If you enjoy the works of Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Charles Dickens (and any of the adaptations BBC and Masterpiece Classic has been expertly churning out over the past few years), you are sure love North & South.
I think this 1 minute video above sums up nearly everything I love about this film…it’s also a good teaser!
**As I write this, North & South is available to watch on Netflix or BBC’s website