Illumined by a star-making turn from young actress Emily Woof, and suffused with a deep feeling for the landscape and characters of Thomas Hardy's ensemble novel, "The Woodlanders" is a classy and emotionally involving costumer whose only fault is a lack of breadth, most notably in the first half.

Illumined by a star-making turn from young actress Emily Woof, and suffused with a deep feeling for the landscape and characters of Thomas Hardy’s ensemble novel, “The Woodlanders” is a classy and emotionally involving costumer whose only fault is a lack of breadth, most notably in the first half. With intelligent distribution and a campaign worthy of its qualities, the picture could do warm business among a wider contingent than just upscale auds, and ring a special bell with female viewers.

Though the pic had a lengthy post-production, mostly centered on problems of length, the finished product reps an impressive transition to the bigscreen by Brit documaker Phil Agland, whose charting of life in exotic regions of Africa and China the past 15 years pays dividends here in re-creating Hardy’s late-19th-century rural Wessex. Agland’s 1986 docu series, “Beyond the Clouds,” set in southern China, was cinematic in its approach to lensing and character, and visually “The Woodlanders” often recalls aspects of the Emmy-winning Channel 4 production, here magnified by Ashley Rowe’s glorious widescreen photography.

With no backgrounding of the setting, the movie leaps straight into the small community of Little Hintock, a collection of woodland dwellings that is effectively a self-sustaining world. Among the inhabitants are Marty (Jodhi May), a plainish peasant girl forced to sell her hair to wig-makers, self-made timber merchant Melbury (Tony Haygarth) and taciturn woodsman Giles (Rufus Sewell), for whom Marty has long held a silent torch. Marty and Giles live in cottages owned by the local lady of the manor, Mrs. Charmond (Polly Walker), a young widow who’d rather be anyplace than this dull corner of southern England.

Catalyst to the drama is the arrival from finishing school of Melbury’s daughter, Grace (Woof), now a poised young woman a couple of rungs up the social ladder from when she was last home. Grace and Giles were childhood sweethearts, but her father now reckons she can do better — a fact that’s confirmed by a disastrously clumsy dinner that Giles hosts in his humble abode.

Enter the apparently sincere, handsome young doctor FitzPiers (newcomer Cal MacAninch), and soon Emily is hitched and off on her honeymoon. Only when she returns do cracks start to appear in her happiness — FitzPiers revealing himself as a snob and philanderer — and the deep-seated attraction between her and Giles comes back into play.

Hardy’s novel is rare among his output in being about a collection of people rather than focused on a central couple, and though the movie largely retains this aspect, some characters — notably Marty and Mrs. Charmond — have clearly lost out in the editing. It’s to the credit of the actors, and David Rudkin’s fine script, that you want to know more, not less, about these people. There’s also a sense in the first half of pushing ahead at the expense of atmosphere and detail: Agland’s rare montages of everyday life are fascinating, and add much to the general texture of the film, which could easily take on an extra 15 minutes to its benefit.

Despite those faults, the narrative and characters hook the viewer from early on, not least thanks to an engrossing tech package. George Fenton’s warm, modal score is always well spotted for emotional effect, Andy Harris’ production design never picturesque for its own sake, and Rowe’s lensing shows careful differentiation in the seasonal light. Also rating kudos are Susannah Buxton’s lived-in costumes, equally realistic but cinematic.

It also becomes clear as the picture progresses that we’re witnessing a star being born. OK but hardly startling in smallish roles in “The Full Monty” (as Robert Carlyle’s ex-wife) and “Photographing Fairies” (as the kids’ governess), the lustrous-eyed Woof increasingly becomes the heart and soul of the movie, with Sewell almost a bystander. It’s a performance of quiet, emergent detail (such as the switches in accent depending on the class of person she’s talking to) and accumulating screen presence, rather than grandstanding moments, though the young thesp holds her own in two crucial scenes — her re-encounter with Sewell on a hillside, and meeting with Walker in the woodlands.

Sewell’s perf is restrained and notably unselfish, steering clear of playing Giles as some kind of D.H. Lawrence hunk. Walker makes the most of her under-drawn role, and MacAninch skillfully makes a sympathetic character from the potentially weaselly role of the doc. May unfortunately gets few chances to develop her sidelined role of the peasant girl.

For the record, pic was shot in southern England rather than tax-break locations, mostly Dorset, Wiltshire.

The Woodlanders

British

Production

A Pathe Distribution (in U.K.)/Miramax (in U.S.) release of a Channel Four Films/Pathe Prods. presentation, in association with the Arts Council of England, of a River Films production. (International sales: Film Four Intl., London.) Produced by Barney Reisz, Phil Agland. Directed by Phil Agland. Screenplay, David Rudkin, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, Panavision widescreen), Ashley Rowe; editor, David Dickie; associate editor, Tim Arrowsmith; music, George Fenton; production design, Andy Harris; art direction, John Frankish; costume design, Susannah Buxton; sound (Dolby), Mark Holding; assistant director, Konrad Jay. Reviewed at London Film Festival, Nov. 17, 1997. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Grace Melbury - Emily Woof Giles Winterbourne - Rufus Sewell Dr. FitzPiers - Cal MacAninch Mr. Melbury - Tony Haygarth Marty South - Jodhi May Mrs. Charmond - Polly Walker Old Creedle - Walter Sparrow Grandma Oliver - Sheila Burrell

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