IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY 19TH CENTURY

“The Woodlanders” (1997

Pros: Rufus Sewell, Emily Woof

Cons: predictable

Although I have never read a novel by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), from having watched the screen adaptations of his novels Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the Tuberville, I was pretty much able to anticipate the plot of “The Woodlanders” (1997) from very early on. I knew that Grace Melbury (Emily Woof) was going to let her social-climbing father (Tony Haygarth) push her into a disastrous match and that the soulful, yearning Giles Winterbourne (Rufus Sewell) would have his heart broken. Grace was his childhood sweetheart (five years younger than he) and when she returned from school (finishing school?), he expected she would wed him.

Successful timber-merchant Melbury had had his only child polished for a husband of higher status. Dr. Ftizpiers (Cal Macaninch) does not exude Giles’s virility and the emotionally (not to mention sexually!) inexperienced Grace weds him more from a sense of duty to obey her father than any feelings for him.

Giles continues to ignore Marti South (Jodhi May) a young woman whose feelings for him are as strong, if not quite so obvious, as his for Grace, and everyone (even Mr. Melbury) ends up heartbroken. I think this includes the rich widow, Mrs. Charmond (Polly Walker) who seduces Dr. Fitzpiers, though she is not seen after a meeting in the woods with Grace in which Grace refuses to pressure her husband to give up his mistress, more or less cursing Mrs. Charmond “See him as much as you want — until you wish you had never known him.”

Despite her husband’s desertion of her, the new divorce laws do not allow a divorce without physical cruelty, thwarting Mr. Melbury’s efforts to undo some of the damage his social-climbing has done his only child.

Giles manages to die preserving Grace’s honor in highly melodramatic fashion. And despite the timber business, the woods and green hills endure human follies and heartbreaks.


Sewell who often played rascals (Cold Comfort Farm, Carrington) before being typecast as a villain (A Knight’s Tale, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) can also do stolid, like the sometimes flamboyant Alan Bates in John Schleisinger’s version of “Far from the Maddening Crowd” (though that character’s patience is better rewarded than Giles’s is!). Though not a great beauty (indeed, arguable less beautiful than Sewell ca. 1997), Woof delivered a solid performance as the young woman deferential to male authority (however misguided). Macaninch was suitably feckless (and lost in a rural setting) and Haygarth was suitably insensitive to his daughter’s feelings (and, indeed, nature!).

 

Production values were BBC/Masterpiece Theater solid, effectively shot by Ashley Rowe (Calender Girls, Hot Fuzz). Producer/director Phil Agland has mostly directed documentaries (including five cinematographer credits along with six other directing ones), most recently (2012) “Baka: A Cry from the Rainforest” (of Cameroon).

BTW, -The Woodlanders_ was first published in 1887, between the more famous Thomas Hardy novels The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891).

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