Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Stepanie Vale
“I don’t see why men who’ve got wives they don’t want, shouldn’t get rid of them…I’d sell mine this minute if anybody’d buy her.” When Michael Henchard (Ciaran Hinds) offers to sell his wife and baby girl, Elizabeth Jane, to a passing sailor for 5 guineas at the Weydon fair one evening, the viewing audience gasps at the horrendous audacity of any man who would treat his wife and child in such a fashion! Susan Henchard (Juliet Aubrey) is so humiliated and embarrassed by her drunken husband’s behavior (combined with his history of bad temper), that she agrees to the sale, becoming from then on the wife of the sailor Newson.
She takes off her wedding band and sets it in front of Henchard with a sad, lost look in her eyes while Henchard greedily grabs the 5 guineas off the table and stuffs them in his pocket. When he awakens the next morning to find them gone and realizes what he has done, he swears an oath to God he will not touch alcohol for the space of 21 years. Fast-forward 19 years: the widow Susan “Henchard” Newson and Elizabeth Jane Newson (Jodhi May) are traveling to the same spot where this tragic event happened all those years ago. They have no choice but to seek out Michael Henchard for care and protection: Elizabeth Jane knows nothing of what happened between Michael Henchard and her mother; all she is told is that he is a distant relation of theirs by marriage. Susan questions a local woman where to find the man who sold his wife all those years ago, and the woman “remembers” where he is when paid a few coins for her knowledge; Henchard told her if anyone ever came looking for him, he could be found in Casterbridge. Arriving in Casterbridge later that evening (which is but a short distance away), Susan and Elizabeth Jane discover their “relation” has done quite well for himself over the years in the corn and wheat trade: and he is now the Mayor of Casterbridge…
Henchard now has a chance to redeem himself: his wife has returned with Elizabeth Jane, and he can finally make up to her for what he did all those years ago. But Michael Henchard has not changed much over the years: he is still violent-tempered, tyrannical to his workers, competitive and jealous, overbearing and often downright cruel (even though he has managed to abstain from touching alcohol all these years). Though he is now offered a chance at redemption and begin to make up to his wife and daughter his misdeed, it is now anyone’s guess as to how he will handle it. Also entering the plot are Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy) a Scotsman who manages the corn for Henchard, and Lucetta (Polly Walker), whose mysterious connection with Michael Henchard has yet to be discovered…
The film's content is mild and comprised mainly of thematic elements. There is some drunkenness; man sells his wife and child and swears on a Bible in a church he will not touch drink for 21 years. A man is forced to go to work without britches (we don’t see anything) and he claims he is so embarrassed he will kill himself. A married couple kiss (his shirt is off), talk and then kiss some more but are interrupted by a door knock. The townspeople mock two people (in effigy), a woman miscarriages, a mention is made of a man who got intimate with an unmarried woman, there is some lying and underhandedness and an intense fight between two men. As far as language goes it is very mild. There is one misuse of the Lord’s name, one “the world has the blackness of h*ll,” and a phrase of “pray God you never may.”
A&E did an excellent job on this Thomas Hardy adaptation; it is accurate to the original story (although I did feel some moments and scenes were cut too short to allow the full effect to seep in), but I still feel it is well done on the whole. The acting is superb with Ciarán Hinds dominating in his role as the tyrannical Michael Henchard; also excellent is Jodhi May as the sweet Elizabeth Jane, Polly Walker as Lucetta, and James Purefoy as the Scotsman Donald Farfrae. Although her part is shorter, I also thought Juliet Aubrey as Susan Henchard did a fantastic job. For all the questionable content the book contains, A&E did a surprisingly good job of keeping the movie clean! Although I would have liked a bit more time for development of some of the romantic moments, the major story points are definitely there, and in keeping with typical Hardy fashion, this film is not only enthralling but also tragic and heartbreaking to the very end.