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The Mayor Of Casterbridge
cast: Ciarán Hinds, Juliet Aubrey, Jodhi May, James Purefoy, and Polly Walker

director: David Thacker

198 minutes (PG) 2001
widescreen ratio 16:9
Prism Leisure DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
The great advantage of television over cinema for adaptations of novels is that there is much less need for telescoping the original text. This allows classics (and their fans) a chance to breathe, which is important in something with as complex a plot as The Mayor Of Casterbridge. Here we have a BBC adaptation that is faithful to the original novel, but let's not forget that Thomas Hardy revised the text (sometimes extensively) half-a-dozen times over the course of 35 years after its first publication in 1886, which leaves considerable freedom for anyone wishing to use it. It has recently been filmed as a western (The Claim, 2000), after all, which is not as bizarre an idea as it might at first sound given the primitive impulses of many of the characters.

Here comes the basic plot. With some difficulty, spoilers will be avoided, although any philistine who hasn't bothered to read the wonderful source novel does not deserve this consideration. Even so, many will already have seen the miniseries when it was broadcast, or will have seen the 1978 BBC Dennis Hopper adaptation with Albert Finney as Henchard (which is almost twice the length of this version). It is understood that not many people have watched The Claim.

Around the year 1830, Michael Henchard (Ciarán Hinds), an itinerant labourer, arrives at a country fair with his wife, Susan (Juliet Aubrey), and his baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. He proceeds to get drunk and, after squabbling with his wife, auctions off both her and his daughter to the highest bidder, a sailor called Newson. Afterwards, unable to find them again, he swears off drink for 21 years. Nineteen years later, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May) return to the fair. Susan finds that Henchard now resides in Casterbridge and they set off to find him. They arrive on the same day that a Scotsman, the delightfully named Farfrae (James Purefoy), happens to be passing through. Henchard, by now mayor and a merchant of considerable standing, is having a set-to with the town over the quality of his grain. Farfrae is able to suggest a way of rescuing the grain, but wants no payment for this, considering this merely to be a good deed. Henchard is overjoyed and manages to convince him to stay on by impulsively offering him a position as his manager (while forgetting that he has already offered the post to another - emotional impulsiveness is Henchard's great flaw). Susan also makes her presence known to Henchard but makes it known that she will make no claim on him if he does not wish it. Elizabeth-Jane, it must be said, is ignorant of the couple's past and thinks that Newson was her father. Henchard, gripped by guilt for all these years, decides that the best course of action is to marry Susan again, which will restore things to their previous state while keeping his own standing in the town untarnished. He then realises that he has already promised to marry his former lover from Jersey, the beautiful but fragile Lucetta (Polly Walker). As time passes, Farfrae proceeds to win the affection of the locals (almost a force of nature in this story) and the hearts of both Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta. This, of course, wins him the jealous enmity of Henchard, who then sets out to crush him. This takes us to around just over the halfway point, and there we must stop. The twists and revelations that flow around the plot would not be well served by further summarisation. Suffice to say, little is what it seems.

The flaws in this adaptation are few and are mostly the obvious ones. The opening scene feels rushed, as if the director is trying to get them out of the way as quickly as possible. One can see why: it is doubtful if Ciarán Hinds ever looked 20. And when Susan and Elizabeth-Jane return to the fair, it seems as if it were the same day as when they were sold and not, as it should be, many years in the future. One or two of the exterior shots also look a bit anachronistic; here or there, a road-surface or a window-frame seems too modern.

These minor niggles are far outweighed by its strengths. The cast, especially the principles, are perfect. Hinds is particularly so, as he manages the awkward job of producing a sympathetic monster - "Judge me by my future works" indeed. Ivan Strasburg's interior photography frequently has the feel of a Dutch old master about it, and Adrian Johnston's beautiful, melancholic score feeds the drama without smothering it.

There are no extras on this budget DVD release. It doesn't need any.

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