My practice has been to watch each of my Netflix movies twice: once for plot, etc., and then again for craftsmanship. Lately I’ve only wanted to watch a few movies once. “1915” was an Aussie series with fuzzy photography, a tour of the trenches of Gallipoli. Two young buddies -- classic -- and two young ladies -- sure. Damage and loss right and left without much sense of what for. Ironically, one of the strongest characters is the gay man who managed to stay at home, though his true love went. It must have been the acting, for he seemed twice as intelligent as anyone around him.
And “He Knew He Was Right” struck me about the same as the imdb reviewer who said, “The scenery was lovely and the music was very loud.” Too much stuff, too predictable, too faintly motivated, and so on. But since this is BBC, some familiar faces. It’s 2004 now and the sterling Geraldine James is out of her WWII “Jewel in the Crown” uniform, solidly married, a little wrinkly and heavier, but just as straightforward and strong. This time Cracker’s wife has two very strange daughters. In England an ugly or eccentric face can land an actor quite a bit of work. In this rather grotesque movie, an exceptional number of people had very long necks as though they aspired to be gerenuks (a long-necked African antelope, not quite a giraffe.) Jane Lapoitaire, as a twisted old maid with a fortune, does her usual fine job of looking weird but convincing. I agree with the critic who thought the main fault was that Oliver Dimsdale (whose first mistake was his name) just wasn’t up to his role. It was hard to understand why anyone paid any attention to him at all or, indeed, that he knew anything.
But this is all piffle. “North & South” was recommended to me by the Netflix phone-answerer to whom I reported a lost disc. She said it was her favorite all-time movie so I put it on my queue. And she was right. This is a beautiful story, written as a short book by the estimable Elizabeth Gaskell. The length may be part of the secret since the Trollope (“He Knew etc.") is a very long book. “North & South” has been Googlized and can be read online, but it is in that kind of “ah, yes” rhetoric for which most of us have little patience. Still, the movie was so good, the book might be worth it. Maybe the simplicity of the concept will shine through the verbal curlicues.
It’s interesting how often a north/south split arises: it’s even here on the Blackfeet Reservation with the full-bloods to the south and the mixed bloods to the north -- at least that’s what it was in the beginning. Mostly now it comes down to prosperity and that’s also true in this English North/South split. The hero is from the hard-driving manufacturer’s culture of the north, but his backstory excuses him since his determined mother and he had to cope with the loss of their breadwinner when he was a child. Likewise, the heroine is from an easeful rose-strewn south where her luxury is leavened -- or stiffened -- by moral consciousness. Tim Piggot-Whatsis, the wicked and obsessed cop of “Jewel in the Crown” is here a little older and wrinklier, even managing to seem rather frail as the heroine’s clergyman father who through conscience must step out of the ecclesiastical scene. (The voice-overs suggested that Tim enjoyed the change greatly!)
The romance in this movie is quite palpable and the voice-overs felt some real chemistry developed between the romantic leads. The only actor to be interviewed on the disc was Richard Armitage, who says quite frankly that he saw this as a “role of a career” and who put his heart into what could have been a Tim Piggot-Smith villain. By the time the lovers kiss at the end, so sweetly and tenderly, we want it as badly as they do. Armitage says they had to shoot that same scene more than a half-dozen times and suggests “it was a very pleasant day’s work” without him seeming sleazy or avid. Kisses like yellow roses.
This factory wove cotton and killed the workers slowly when they inhaled the constantly wafting lint into their lungs. The camera was intensely aware of the beauty of this deadly snow and all the scenes of the actual working looms were full of imitation lint from what they called “snow candles,” a kind of gizmo used by movie makers. Fog was also constant and water in the form of puddles and drenching rain. The voice-overs (production staff) also explained how the “north” was shot to be dark, gradually lightening as the heroine begins to understand what she’s seeing, while the “south” was vivid in the beginning, but sort of blurred and ambered by the end. I thought of one of my parishioners in Saskatoon who said that after years on the bleached prairie, she went back to the lush English climate where she grew up and found it stifling, too much. In short, the crew of craftsmen and artists working on this film were clearly resourceful as well as loving the story.
The great satisfaction of this story is its symmetry, which also includes another father/daughter pair, working class which in that situation meant little more than slavery, but working for betterment as much as the clergyman and his daughter. I quite fell in love with Brendan Coyle who played Nicholas Higgins, and again, the voice-overs said they felt the friendship that developed between this defiant father and Thornton, the stubborn mill-owner, was as crucial as the love story.
So, the lesson is: simple forces that act on each other with symmetry and synergy, not destroying each other but influencing each other for the better as understanding develops. Excellent casting of people who know that less is more, that heart shows in the face. Skilled craftsmen with strong aesthetics and the means to bring them to the screen. If a person wanted to put it in one word, maybe “truth” would be it. Not in the sense of facts, but in the sense of human basics and emotional honesty. Artistic truth. I just loved it. As much as “Jewel in the Crown?” Yes. And for the same reasons: human stories against the great grinding wheel of history which yet cannot destroy love among people. This is Mrs. Gaskell's heart-of-hearts conviction.