To many people, the name Thomas Hardy will draw a blank, but he is quite well-known through the titles of his books: Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Thomas Hardy wrote of 19th century rural England and the conflict that ensues when the poor bump up against the wealthy. The Thomas Hardy Collection is a two-disc DVD set, containing imaginings of two of Hardy’s greatest works, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1998) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (2001).
Of the two, it’s easier to love Tess as a protagonist. Justine Waddell is an inspired choice and believable as a period heroine, all billowy clouds of brown hair and pure pale skin. Her Tess evolves from glowy farm girl to hollow-cheeked beauty ground up by poverty and then finally to fae-like impulse child with nothing to lose. Arguably one of the most believably written women in the English language, Tess appeals to modern audience with her bold independence.
The first time Tess leaves home, she tries to improve her family’s situation by approaching the wealthy D’Urberville family, to whom she mistakenly believes she is related. She staunchly refuses the advances of the master of the house, Alec D’Urberville (an excellent Jason Flemyng).
There’s a charming sequence involving Tess trying to whistle at the songbirds, at the request of the eccentric Lady D’Urberville: “Mother won’t be happy with you unless you can whistle to her birds”, teases Alec, whistling before he kisses her on the cheek. She pulls away and he snappily retorts: “I taught you whistling, cuz, and one day I’ll teach you kissing.” As a Victorian tragedy, though, such repartee does not lead to happiness.
Tess takes takes a job as a milkmaid, which offers a second sighting of her first love – Angel Clare (Oliver Milburn). This film version will introduce you to the unexpected romance of milking a cow, the sideways glance along the haunch. Symbolism of the natural world and its dangers abound: the sharpening of a scythe, the pricking of rose thorns. Watching love’s petals unfold for Angel is touching, but Tess has been compromised and happiness is all too brief.
The ending of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is abrupt after such an epic travel, but oh, what a journey. Both books (as well as the movie adaptations) are set in the semi-fictional part of England known as Wessex, based on Hardy’s homeland of Dorchester.Tess of the D’Urbervilles features idyllic artistic visuals, from May Day dances to gloriously golden brown harvests, industrial age machines contrasted with peasants bent-back from scything.
Contrasted with Tess’ indomitable resourcefulness is the character of Mike Henchard. Henchard is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, a believably flawed man who is the sole disruptor of his own happiness.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard starts off as a drunken sot who sells off his wife and infant daughter for money to drink. This leads him to vow off alcohol for a period of 21 years and he manages to build himself a life of respectability as a prominent corn and grains merchant.
Henchard, played by the ever-astonishing Ciaran Hinds, is by turns unfaithful, fickle, cruel and unjust. A chance at redemption arrives in the appearance of his formerly-sold wife and their now-adult daughter. They are destitute and so move to Casterbridge where she poses as a widow and he “marries” her. He confides in his new manager, the confident and charming Farfrae (James Purefoy), of his past shame.
Lucetta (Polly Walker), a wealthy widow loved and abandoned by Henchard, seizes her chance at happiness and marries Farfrae, who up till now had courted Henchard’s daughter. Henchard sees both of the women he loves being lost to Farfrae and jealousy blooms, leading him to a series of bad business and personal decisions.
One consistent thread through the The Mayor of Casterbridge is the female characters’ anxiety about their public reputation and lack of control over their destiny; this is shown in moments like the suspenseful delicacy of opening a highly-anticipated letter.
Lies are told, secrets are kept, and shame is hidden until publicly exposed. Henchard’s weaknesses lead to the loss of all he holds dear; the plot rivets your gaze, like a carriage crash in slow motion.
This 2-DVD set is the perfect addition to any literary film buff’s library. Watching The Thomas Hardy Collection made me wish to go back and reread the books…and what greater gift can a literary movie adaptation give?