Fan Letter #1
Dear Mr. Armitage,
I am a professor of European history at a large public university in the United States. Last fall, a colleague introduced me to the BBC dramatization of “North and South” (2004) in which you star as Mr. Thornton. I enjoyed it, but in the turmoil of the fall, it fell off my radar until recently, when another colleague–attempting to give me something nice in the wake of my being denied tenure–suggested I watch it for consolation. I admit that it was the second viewing of the film that electrified me, and I decided to incorporate it into the modern history survey I am teaching.
Because I have now read, heard, or seen many interviews with you about your participation in this production, I have learned that you have repeatedly attributed the quality of this production to Elizabeth Gaskell, who provided the template for it with her book, or the script writers and producers, or even to your fellow actors. I hope that your feelings in this regard and what appears to be a combination of fairly severe shyness and/or enviable modesty about your considerable gifts will not prevent you from listening to a discussion of why, from a historian’s point of you, your performance as Thornton is decisive for making this film worthwhile watching for U.S. students of history.
The problem that the film sets up in contrast to the book is the scriptwriters’ decision to cast the narrative from Margaret Hale’s perspective. This means that the viewer loses, at least potentially, all of the information that the reader has about Thornton’s thoughts and feelings. The Victorian reader would have been able to assume–because she lived in the period–certain things about Thornton that our students, in their U.S. culture of openness and non-restraint–have never observed personally or even in remnants among their most elderly relatives, and thus simply miss. Your very restrained portrayal of Thornton, one that covers up all of the things the reader knows Thornton is feeling, makes clear to viewers today who have no connection to Victorian manners exactly the relationship between what Thornton thinks and feels and how he is able to be and act and speak in his world. His interior life is clear from your subtle portrayal. The script sets up the opposite problem for any actress who plays Margaret–as we already know the content of her interior life, we expect to see certain indices of it, and as admirably as Ms. Denby-Ashe portrays Margaret when she is speaking, nonetheless her attempts to provide a disciplined exterior for the viewers to remind us that Thornton does not know what she is thinking often make her appear vacant or distracted.
The great paradox of interiority on film is that something interior and unknowable nonetheless has to be communicated to the viewer. Because the film viewer does not have the information of the reader, the task the script sets you is thus considerable. Victorian art and literature as mirrors of their particular society suggest that Victorians had mastered the skill of the slight gesture, glance, or even silence that speaks all. Your performance–in which Thornton’s interiority is often communicated with the smallest eye motion or twitch of a facial muscle, or even by a disciplined façade that reveals nothing–is thus Victorian in itself. It performs something that must be hidden; it speaks something that must be silent. Even when you appear to be doing nothing at all, your presence must be saying something. This is the great art of your performance, and the decisive factor that makes it meaningful from the standpoint of the historian.
With all best wishes for your future endeavors, sincerely,
The Historian and Blogger