I first fell in love with Thomas Hardy novels after reading The Woodlanders. If you are familiar with tales by Hardy, you’ll know this guy probably would have been the master of soap opera storylines if television had been invented in his days but it really is his descriptions that you can’t go beyond due to his skill with evocative prose. Recently I watched The Mayor of Casterbridge, based on his novel of that name, adapted for the silver screen by David Thacker, starring Ciaran Hinds as Michael Henchard, who delivers a stellar, heartbreaking performance in the pivotal last scenes. The captivating and beautiful score set against the lush country backdrop does not hurt. By the way, Casterbridge is a fictional town representing Dorchester. Do note though it is a long production with a running time of almost over three hours so only start watching when you have enough time to spare.
It all begins in a small town where a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard sells his wife and infant daughter for five guineas, in a bid that begins as a joke but turns serious, after having too much to drink. When he sobers up and realises his folly, he makes an oath not to touch alcohol 21 years, the number of years he has lived, and builds a good life for himself.
Nineteen years later he is a successful agrarian and the mayor of Casterbridge – a town not far from the fair where he sold his family. When his wife Susan (Juliet Aubrey) returns with his daughter Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May) because her other “husband” Newson was lost at sea, Henchard is tormented because while he has a chance to atone for his wrongdoing, he is paranoid that his past transgressions will be discovered by the townspeople. His deep-seated need to protect his reputation from past improprieties soon leads to a complex web of deceit and lies involving Henchard, his “mistress” Lucetta (Polly Walker) and his wife. Poor Elizabeth-Jane is an innocent but cannot help being caught in the middle of the ensuing drama.
Meanwhile on the same day his family returns, Henchard meets a Scotsman, Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), who has developed a technique to restore bad grain. The mayor persuades Farfrae to become his manager and confesses his secret to the young man. Luckily for him, although his secret is ousted later in court when he is judging a case, Farfrae is an honourable, just and trustworthy man unlike the mayor. So the mayor turns bitter and jealous when his new manager consistently outdoes him.
Like most other works by Hardy, the plot is full of secret revelations, hidden romantic entanglements, family feuds, complicated tangles of lies and business rivalries. What makes this story so interesting is that Henchard, his wife, and his mistress are not bad people but each makes terrible choices of which the aftermath is horrible. There are many themes in this story but the recurring theme is deception. In the end the people who hurt the most are the ones who give rise to it. Henchard’s behavior makes him difficult persona to admire mostly because of his hostility to Elizabeth-Jane after Susan’s letter provided the truth but because in sudden bursts he will do the right thing or tries to enables the audience to feel empathy for him especially when we hear his final will and testament.
I think that was the last straw for me because I felt stinging in my tear ducts and let out the waterworks. If you can stand tragic melodrama, enjoy classics and are able to endure the screen time, you’ll love this production if you can forgive the farfetched plot.