Filmed at Exmoor, England, by Craig Anderson Prods. and Signboard Hill Prods. Executive producers, Craig Anderson, Richard Welsh. Co-producer, Brent Shields. Director, Jack Gold; writer, Robert W. Lenski; based on the novel by Thomas Hardy; "Hallmark Hall of Fame" recoups its quality tradition with a race-through adaptation of Thomas Hardy's never-before-filmed 1878 novel "The Return of the Native." Compressed and stripped, charged with sodden melodrama, presentation still outstrips many less ambitious video dramas. Some may shy away from the histrionics, but the vidpic's choice stuff.

Filmed at Exmoor, England, by Craig Anderson Prods. and Signboard Hill Prods. Executive producers, Craig Anderson, Richard Welsh. Co-producer, Brent Shields. Director, Jack Gold; writer, Robert W. Lenski; based on the novel by Thomas Hardy; “Hallmark Hall of Fame” recoups its quality tradition with a race-through adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s never-before-filmed 1878 novel “The Return of the Native.” Compressed and stripped, charged with sodden melodrama, presentation still outstrips many less ambitious video dramas. Some may shy away from the histrionics, but the vidpic’s choice stuff.

Director Jack Gold wastes no time establishing heath-bound Eustacia Vye (Catherine Zeta Jones) in 1842 in Egdon Heath village. Beautiful and intriguing, suspected by some of being a witch, Eustacia drops rogue Wildeve (Clive Owen), who spitefully marries Thomasin (Claire Skinner) against the wishes of her genteel aunt, Mrs. Yeobright (Joan Plowright).

Mrs. Yeobright’s son, Clym (Ray Stevenson), in Paris for five years, comes home to Egdon Heath to open a school for the underprivileged. Eustacia, anxious to shake the heath, marries Clym despite his mother’s strong objections, hopeful she can get him to move back to Paris.

While using Hardy’s trademark fateful turns such as the unanswered door and the overlooked letter on the mantelpiece, vidpic drops the snake bite that knocks off one major character and forgoes the villager stabbing pins into a waxen image shaped like Eustacia. Final third of the telefilm, boiling down the action and characters, charges into a silent-movie-style high-flown meller.

The beautiful Jones establishes Eustacia as a special identity from her first appearance on a hill; she turns in a strong perf. Stevenson, in his first major film role, makes an auspicious bow. Steven Mackintosh is a quiet standout as Diggory Venn, projecting a sweet melancholy because of his secret love for Thomasin; Owen’s commanding, hedonistic Wildeve is a seductive characterization. Plowright delivers an appropriate Mrs. Yeobright.

Alan Hume’s lensing and Jim Oliver’s editing are superb. Peter Mullins’ gorgeous, period design for the production handsomely sets up the story, and Derek Hyde’s costumes are terrif. Carl Davis’ swollen score weighs in heavily — but then, it’s Thomas Hardy.

The 182nd “Hallmark Hall of Fame” dramatization is a winner, though it makes clear why Hardy’s novel hasn’t been filmed before. If those who haven’t read the novel have trouble getting a handle on the drama, just stick around: It’s worth it. They might even pick up the book after seeing this truncated version.

The Return of the Native

Production

CBS, Sun. Dec. 4, 9 p.m.

Crew

Camera, Alan Hume; editor, Jim Oliver; production designer, Peter Mullins; art director, David Minty; sound, Tony Dawe; costumes, Derek Hyde; music, Carl Davis. 120 MIN.

With

Cast: Catherine Zeta Jones, Ray Stevenson, Joan Plowright, Clive Owen, Steven Mackintosh, Claire Skinner, Celia Imrie, Paul Rogers, Gregg Saunders, Richard Avery, Matthew Owen, Peter Wight, Jeremy Peters, John Boswall, William Waghorn, Britta Smith, John Breslin, Daniel Newman.
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