1. The first one I watched was North & South (2004). I've heard fantastic things about this series for a while, so I had high expectations. They were met. My roommate described it as Pride and Prejudice on steroids. But to be fair, it's quite different than Pride and Prejudice, lacking in the amusing criticism of society and instead going for a harsh criticism of society set in the context of the Industrial Revolution with discussion of worker conditions, capitalism, poverty, and unions. Although I would say it's just as satisfying a watch as Pride and Prejudice.
Margaret Hale is a young woman whose father has quit the clergy on basis of doubts about doctrine. Mr. Hale moves his wife a daughter from the idyllic south to a bleak industrial town in the north. Margaret struggles to adjust to her new environment, including different social customs, interacting with the working class, and especially the cotton mill owner John Thornton. Margaret manages to make friends and get entangled in the town's labor movement just by doing what she thinks is right. In terms of Mr. Thornton, many smoldering stares and fiery arguments ensue as they can never see eye to eye. But the relationship is within a larger context of the town's strife and complex motivations, with Thornton being more pragmatically minded and Margaret more socially minded. In other words, their disagreements are based on more than just societal slights, but principles.
[above: brood brood smolder smolder]
But a lot of what makes this miniseries so good is the actual filming. The lighting is beautiful, coming mostly from windows and candles. The southern settings are always bright and rich with saturated colors, while the north is rather bleak with muted and faded colors. There's also a lovely use of focus, creating interesting shots--especially as Mr. Thornton broodingly stares at his workers amidst the flying cotton balls of his mill.
At four episodes, about an hour each, it's a well-paced watch that never feels dragged out. Certainly some things were probably rushed for the sake of adaptation, but it works well and key characters are established and developed. The lovely theme written by Martin Phipps adds to the sorrowful and passionate feel of the film. And I've kind of avoided swooning, but I'll let you know the melancholy Mr. Thornton is perfectly swoon worthy, especially when he grows scruff when he's especially bedraggled. This is just to say, it satisfies my need for period romance.
Listen to the music swell as Thornton walks in his mill and Margaret writes her friend Edith:
2. The second miniseries I watched was Daniel Deronda (2002). This has been a favorite of mine since it aired on Masterpiece Theatre when I was in high school. It's based on a novel by George Eliot, meaning it's somewhat mystical with a healthy dose of cheese. Andrew Davies works his magic as a master adapter of text to screen. I have it on good authority that the book is a pretty ridiculous and a bit long, and I believe it having read Eliot's overly cheesy and somehow overly long Silas Marner in high school which is pretty short. I'm sure DD is filled with sentimental muckraking, which also bleeds through this recent adaptation.
More than anything, Daniel Deronda is a character study of several young people in 1870s England. The main character Daniel Deronda is a young man searching for purpose. He doesn't know his origins, but has a caring adoptive father in Sir Hugo who is rumored to have fathered Daniel illegitimately. Daniel is kind and described as "not like other young men." Gwendolyn Harleth is a selfish young woman who is a master at manipulating others to give her what she wants and manages to string along young men for game. She's very much like Scarlett O'Hara. She captures the attention of Daniel, but also a Mr. Grandcourt who is deliciously malicious and likes to play games with people. Grandcourt manages to win over Gwendolyn despite his several odious characteristics/actions because of her need for money. And of course there is Mirah Lapidoth, a Jewish woman in dire straits who is saved by Daniel. And then there's the family that takes in Mirah that includes Daniel's artist friend Hans. And then there are several people of the society, such as the great musician Herr Klesmer who is known as much for his expertise as his heritage as a Jew.
[above: Gwendolyn, played by Romola Garai, aiming at her target. I'd like to see more of this actress.]
I'm doing a terrible job of summarizing the action; suffice it to say that the characters' lives weave in and out of each others' within several story lines during this three and a half hour series. It's all about society and how people fit into it. Some of the issues discussed are antisemitism (obvs), power struggles between the sexes, the Zionist movement, and love. Somehow Daniel Deronda never feels overwhelmed with characters or plots since it's spread over a longer time frame. Much of the series is very tense in a keeping-up-appearnces sort of way, especially between Daniel and Gwendolyn or Gwendolyin and Mr. Grandcourt. Butt he film manages to find its center in Daniel and his decision regarding what he's going to do with his life, finding out his heritage, and who he will love.
The style of the film is a lot like North & South, featuring lovely natural lighting, interesting use of focus, and the frequent use of close-ups. The soundtrack for Daniel Deronda is even more distinguished than North & South since it features several motifs, from the mysterious vocals whenever a scene is featured in the Jewish district of London to the haunting theme following Mirah to the doomed melody following Gwendolyn.
And of course I swoon over Daniel who is played by Hugh Dancy. He plays Daniel as a ponderous young man that thinks little of himself. I'm always excited to see Dancy in other performances; unfortunately, he's placed in fairly bland roles much of the time. Perhaps embarrassingly, my second favorite role for him was in The Jane Austen Book Club as a tech support guy who gets weaseled into the club (which is actually kind of good for a chick lit film, but certainly not a masterpiece. Here's a clip). Anyway, there is rowing and singing and all together adorableness coming from this role. Love.
[above: attractive man rowing and smiling.]
Overall, Daniel Deronda somehow seems more bleak after watching North & South since the relationships between people are seen more intimately and thus more complexly; it never ignores the realities of marrying for money or loving someone who loves someone else. But it's also rather hopeful, with the ever optimistic Daniel at the center.
And did I mention the costuming? Gorgeous. Enjoy this clip:
Gwendolyn at her privileged best, being admired by many men despite her musical mediocrity.