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In a drunken and disheartened state, Michael Henchard sells his wife at a fair. When he becomes sober again he realises what he has done, and though unable to find his wife and child, changes his ways. He becomes the Mayor of the town. Nearly twenty years later his past comes back to haunt him. Written by
This grim BBC miniseries is hard on ears belonging to non-British viewers who aren't already familiar with the Thomas Hardy source novel, so thick are the regional accents, so muffled is the soundtrack, and so lackadaisically introduced are some of the plot developments. Whether you can understand all of his utterances or not, Alan Bates gives a robust performance in the lead, his second foray into Hardy territory, several years after his incarnation as sheep farmer Gabriel Oak in John Schlesinger's "Far from the Madding Crowd." Henchard is far less appealing than Oak and it's difficult to warm to such a man although you can respect him for rising from the mess he makes of his youth to prominence and commercial success in middle age. Bates barks most of his lines as if to emphasize his character's simplicity and lack of finesse. His outbursts of rage and drunken excess are brilliantly effective. There is nothing likable about him but we can empathize with his plight, that of an ordinary man with strengths and weaknesses who was unlucky enough to make a major mistake early in life that eventually overshadowed all that was to come.
This adaptation by Dennis Potter takes some liberties with the twisty, coincidence-laden plot, and not always to good effect, though it's hard to tell how much was written out as opposed to how much was cut after shooting. The casting of supporting roles is apt; these are not glamorous people, but ordinary rural folk of the mid-19th century, and all of the actors who play these roles fully bring their homely characters to convincing and persuasive life, aided by the liberal use of closeups and long takes. Jack Galloway is particularly impressive as goodhearted, trusting Donald Farfrae, the Scotsman who is forcefully befriended by Henchard, only to become his undoing. Strangely, the germination and blossoming of their relationship, so clearly laid out in the novel, is skipped and introduced full-blown like an afterthought, which not only removes the fatalistic element but becomes another of several inexplicable plot shifts that viewers must accept as a given. The piling up of these arbitrary developments weaken the presentation. Like Schlesinger's "Crowd" before it, the physical production convincingly replicates the era in question, down to costume and furnishings and the population of grizzled locals seen at pubs and markets and stables. Interiors look like they were shot in the actual cramped, underlit, claustrophobic dwellings the characters inhabited. Carl Davis's somber, spare score complements the tone without getting in the way.
A boom mike is clearly visible in one parlor scene and shadows of booms appear occasionally in other scenes. At times characters run over each other's lines in a way that mimics actual non-rehearsed speech but could also be gaffes that were left intact due to budget or schedule concerns. On the whole it looks like a modestly financed production whose every penny was wisely invested in the period furnishings and costumes. Good use is made of the melancholy, windswept countryside.
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