After watching this set, Judge Roman Martel thinks Mr. Hardy had a serious case of the Mondays.
Our review of Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, published January 13th, 2009, is also available.
Are you ready for two timeless stories of human tragedy? Well get those hankies ready, we've got a doozy this time.
Thomas Hardy's famous novels, Tess of the D'urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge combined into A&E's The Thomas Hardy Collection. That's over six hours of tragic lives in the late 1800s.
First up is Tess of the D'urbervilles. Tess Durbeyfield (Justine Waddell, The Fall) looks to be content living the life of a poor country girl. But after her father discovers that they are distantly related to the powerful D'urberville family, Tess is pressured to go to the last living D'urberville estate to see if she can find work, and perhaps marry into the family proper. There she meets the impulsive Alec D'Urberville (Jason Flemyng, X-men: First Class). He takes a shine to Tess, and she finds him handsome but too forward. She discovers exactly how forward when a romp in the forest turns into a rape.
Tess leaves the D'urberville estate, pregnant with Alec's child and returns home. Sadly her child dies a few weeks after it is born. Desiring to leave her past behind, Tess finds work at a dairy farm and there meets the handsome and sensitive Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn, The Descent). The two fall for each other and Angel wants desperately to marry Tess. But she is afraid to tell Angel about her history for fear that his obsession with purity will cause him to dispose her. But the past refuses to be buried and soon fate and guilt turn Tess' life upside down.
Tess is one of those characters who lives a life of struggle and sadness. While there are moments when some happiness and joy shine through, time and again fate, or a poor decision, causes things to fall hopelessly apart. In many ways Tess of the D'urbervilles is a brutal examination of how women were treated in the late 1800s and how society forced them into difficult and sometimes hopeless situations. While Tess makes some questionable choices, we understand why she feels she has to make them.
She's not a blameless heroine, but she's a lot more grounded then either of the two men in the story. Alec is a man who is used to getting what he wants, when he wants it. And yet on some level I think he may actually have feelings for Tess, but his desire to possess what he views as a challenge overrides any compassion for her. Angel is an idealist, a young man so drenched in his concepts or morality that he can't understand how the purity he seeks may not exist in this very flawed world. It's heartbreaking to see Tess realize that the secret she hides from him is going to destroy their relationship.
The cast for Tess of the D'urbervilles needs to be up to the task of executing these complex characters. Justine Waddell is absolutely perfect in the part. She is luminous in her early scenes, making it very easy to see how Alec and Angel could fall for her. But she also manages the more difficult scenes of internal torment and the emotional highs and lows of the character. Waddell is the center of the film and makes it worth watching even over the considerable run time.
Both Flemyng and Milburn are solid in their respective parts. Flemyng's extreme confidence and intensity allow you to understand why the young Tess is attracted and yet frightened of him. Milburn's part is a little more straightforward. As the story unfolds in the final half hour he does a great job of interacting with Waddell and making their relationship resonate with tragedy.
The production values are surprisingly good. The costumes and sets look wonderful, but most surprising is the excellent cinematography by Richard Greatrex. He gives the whole movie a cinematic look, with gorgeous lighting and excellent compositions. Combined with a suitable musical score by Alan Lisk, the whole package is handled well.
There are a couple missteps that keep me from heartily recommending it to everyone. First there is a bizarre voice over that pops up infrequently enough to be annoying. It rarely adds anything to the proceedings and I wonder why it was included in the first place. Second, because of compressing the material into a three hour series, you end up with some rushed scenes and some bizarre edits.
Most literature fans and critics declare Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge to be the writer's defining work. The tale begins with Michael Henchard (Ciaran Hinds, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) and his wife Susan (Juliet Aubrey Outcasts) arriving in a country fair. Michael indulges in some rum laced porridge and after getting into a drunken argument with his wife, sells her to the highest bidder. She leaves and takes their baby daughter with her. Once Michael sobers up, he declares he will not drink for 21 years and will make something of himself.
We jump forward 19 years as Susan and daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May, Defiance) arrive in the town of Casterbridge to find Michael. Turns out he is a powerful business man, and mayor of the town. He welcomes his wife and child into his home. At the same time Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy, Ironclad) arrives in Casterbridge and takes a job as a manager of Michael's grain business. Eventually, Michael's jealousy of Farfrae's skills and a secret of his past haunt him. Decisions are made, skeletons are thrown out of closets and death and failure loom large. The Mayor of Casterbridge is going to take a hard fall.
Much like Tess of the D'urbervilles, this story centers on the choices and fate of one man. Try as he might Michael just can't seem to get a break. Much of the sadness that is brought down on him is due to his poor choices, his deep mistrust and self consciousness. He is a self loathing man, who is given a chance to redeem himself and constantly makes the wrong choices or finds himself on the bad end of any given circumstance.
The character is a dream for the serious dramatic actor and Hinds really nails the role. He does so much with his eyes and posture that shows us more what Michael is thinking even if his words and actions speak otherwise. It's a compelling performance and key to making The Mayor of Casterbridge work.
The rest of the cast is just as good. Purefoy is a likable chap as Farfrae. He is often ignorant that his actions are affecting Michael, and his attraction to Elizabeth Jane and then Lucetta (Polly Walker, Rome) only add to the perception. Purefoy keeps his character down to earth and believable, even in the face of powerful emotions.
The ladies do pretty well for the most part. Aubrey and Walker have smaller but key roles as the women in the Mayor's life. Only May seems a bit off in her performance. It's a tough part, as Elizabeth Jane's interaction with all the other characters is constantly changing, but I never really connected with her performance.
As with he previous film, sets and costumes are top notch. The town of Casterbridge is well realized and provides a realistic setting for the film. Unfortunately a decision to use a lot of handheld camerawork ends up undermining some of the drama. A little in key moments would be fine, but most of the time it's extremely distracting.
In general this production of The Mayor of Casterbridge just never quite hits all the right marks. While the acting is solid, the character of Michael Henchard is extremely hard to connect with. His behavior is impulsive, cruel and cold. Even though we see him attempting to change his ways, time and again he fails. And when he fails, he takes others with him. Such a character is really hard to spend nearly three hours with. On top of that the adaptation ends up taking its sweet time, moving fairly slowly and even padding some scenes out with montages. The second half of the series suffers the most with at least four studying montages featuring Elizabeth Jane.
A&E packages both films on separate discs. The print for Tess of the D'urbervilles looks pretty good, a bit soft in places, but it fits with the cinematography. The sound is well balanced and clear. The Mayor of Casterbridge is not so lucky. The print looks pretty beat up and the sound mix is off, with the musical score overpowering the dialogue in many key scenes. This is a disappointment especially since the film is newer then Tess. The second disc also includes a brief text biography on Thomas Hardy as well as his bibliography.
Although I'm not familiar with the source novels, both productions are well made and should appeal to fans of tragic costume drama. Tess is the stand out, and well worth seeing.
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