Director David Thacker incorporates a rather unforgiving directorial style in his translation of Thomas Hardy’s epic tale of love, jealousy and regret. Then again, forgiveness is a key theme here. In condensing Hardy’s classic novel, which some consider the first realistic portrait of alcoholism, Thacker never lingers in the moment or wallows in atmosphere. Not a fan of the slow fadeout either, some of the movie’s most intense scenes feel downright truncated. Either St. John O’Rorke is the most diligent editor around, or the movie was poorly spliced for commercial television.
Perhaps Thacker and company are faithfully following the original text, which first appeared in serialized form and teased readers with many miniclimaxes. If viewers forgive the hurried pace, they can appreciate superb acting perfs all around.
Ciaran Hinds gives a haunting performance as Michael Henchard, a British hay trusser who, in the opening scenes, gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas. His wife, Susan (Juliet Aubrey), at first believes his belligerent ramblings are a joke, but as Henchard presses on, she decides her chances with a stranger would be better than with her abusive drunk of a husband. She and the young baby leave with a timid but affable sailor named Newson.
Henchard awakes the next day, hung over and horrified at his actions, and swears off drink for 21 years. After a fruitless search for his wife and daughter, Henchard settles in Casterbridge. Several years pass and Henchard’s sobriety and work ethic pay off. He becomes a successful merchant and eventually mayor.
When Newson is lost at sea, Susan and her now-grown daughter, Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May), return to find Henchard. Still racked with guilt, Henchard conspires to remarry Susan, as long as she agrees never to speak of his horrible past.
All seems to be going well. To ensure his thriving business, Henchard befriends and hires a savvy young businessmen, Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), who quickly makes friends in town and develops a relationship with Elizabeth-Jane. When Farfrae’s popularity eclipses that of the mayor, Henchard’s dark nature resurfaces.
Although the production lacks Hardy’s detailed nuances of the human condition, it succinctly poses the theory that character isn’t determined by misfortune, but rather how one handles it. The pic also successfully evokes a time when relationships and romance took a more formal but no less emotional form.
To that end, the supporting actors bring much needed depth to the characters. As Elizabeth-Jane, May conveys the subtleties of desire with soulful eyes and a compelling blend of confidence and resignation. Purefoy is a wonderful choice as Farfrae, a charismatic and competitive young man.